The nation’s two largest teachers’ unions have officially jumped into the push for publicly financed health care in Vermont.
The American Federation of Teachers gave $100,000 to a newly formed issue advocacy group, Vermont Coalition for Universal Reform, which will work to build broad-based public support for the state’s planned universal health care program and work to ensure its implementation.
Earlier this year the National Education Association, the largest union in the country, funneled $80,000 into Vermont Leads, another single-payer advocacy group.
The labor groups’ spending on health reform in Vermont is a small fraction of what they spend nationally on political lobbying. In 2013-2014, NEA spent $6,689,227 on political lobbying and AFT spent $981,850, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Teachers’ unions will eventually be required to purchase insurance through the state health care exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act.
Those unions will have to choose whether to purchase plans as a group on the exchange or turn their members loose to shop as individuals.
Either way, the generous health benefits many of the unions have fought for over time will likely change.
The American Federation of Teachers in Vermont represents the nurses unions and higher education staffers.
Ben Johnson, the president of the Vermont chapter of the AFT, said the group’s membership has long supported universal health care for Vermonters, and is part of a coalition that made health care reform a core issue in the crowded 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary.
“Our members are largely professional people that have good jobs – jobs that provide health insurance – but they saw the need to work really hard to help bring up the standards for everybody,” Johnson said.
“For the nurses, they see every day what it means not to have good health care, for people to get their primary care in the emergency room or not be able to get the treatment they need,” he said.
Vermont Coalition for Universal Reform, or Vermont CUR, has retained Montpelier lobbying firm KSE Partners to help promote their advocacy work.
“The focus is to support universal reform with the ultimate goal being full implementation of Green Mountain Care,” said Todd Bailey, president of strategic communications for the firm.
The group said it will use an array of tactics to push toward that goal, including direct lobbying, grassroots organizing, paid and earned media, and will also engage in electoral activities.
Vermont CUR is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization and cannot target specific candidates, but can run issue-based political campaigns during election season. The group is not required to disclose its donors.
Bailey said it’s too early to say exactly how the group’s advocacy work will take shape, but that should become clearer in the coming months.
“This is not about the 2014 legislative session. This is about looking to the future and recognizing the 2015-2016 biennium represents the moment when the heavy lift will occur, and to be prepared for that moment you need to start working now,” he said.
The Vermont CUR board is meeting for the first time this week, he said. The board includes Johnson; Art Bell, whose company Dreamlike Pictures has created political advertisements; Bram Kleppner, CEO of Danforth Pewter; Dr. Peter Dale of Central Vermont Medical Center; and Todd Bailey’s wife, Lauren Bailey, a palliative care nurse at Fletcher Allen Health Care.
Todd Bailey has appeared in advertisements made by Bell’s company.
The group may add members to its board and it will continue to look for donors from Vermont and out-of-state, Bailey said.
Advocacy against Vermont’s move toward a universal health care system has come primarily from the group Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, also a 501(c)(4).
The group’s director, Darcie Johnston, declined to discuss whether she has received any large donations or which groups or individuals are supporting her work.