By Robert Lowes
Medscape Today, May 5, 2011
In a 94 to 49 vote today, the state House in Vermont sealed the deal on a bill to eventually create a publicly financed universal healthcare system that some supporters dub “single payer.”
With the state Senate already having given its approval last week, the bill will now go to Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, who is eager to sign it into law.
Today’s action completes the second round of voting for the bill. Both chambers of the Vermont legislature had approved earlier versions, but a House–Senate conference committee had to iron out minor differences and send the bill back for additional votes.
The legislation establishes a state health insurance exchange — mandated by the new healthcare reform law called the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — through which individuals and small businesses can purchase coverage. The bill envisions this exchange becoming a publicly financed health plan called Green Mountain Care that is available to all Vermont residents. Proponents of Green Mountain Care have touted it as a single-payer system, but the bill allows individuals covered under the state plan to buy supplemental policies from private insurers. In addition, individuals can keep the insurance coverage they already have.
For these and other reasons, a group called Physicians for a National Health Program contends that the Vermont bill falls short of a true single-payer model. Although Governor Shumlin disagrees with that assessment, lawmakers removed the expression “single-payer system” from the bill and replaced it with “universal and unified health system.”
Under the ACA, states can obtain waivers to opt out of federal healthcare reform requirements and enact equivalent statewide reforms similar to the kind underway in Vermont beginning in 2017. Shumlin and others hope that Congress passes a pending bill that would move the opt-out date to 2014. States securing waivers will receive the ACA funding that they are otherwise entitled to. Nevertheless, Vermont lawmakers still face the job of devising a comprehensive plan to pay for their new system.
Vermont’s roadmap for universal healthcare coverage and a publicly financed health plan has received mixed reviews from physicians in that state. According to a survey conducted by Democratic state Rep. George Till, MD, who voted for the legislation, 44.2% of physicians support the single-payer concept, and 45.6% oppose it. Opponents tend to be specialists, who are more likely than primary care physicians to view the new system as financially unattractive. In addition, 28.4% of physicians say they would likely stop practicing medicine in Vermont if the proposed reforms come to fruition.