New advocacy group Vermont Leads aims to counter anti-single-payer spin

Peter Sterling

Peter Sterling, executive director of Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security Education Fund, is embarking on a new political venture to start an ad campaign supporting efforts to move to a single-payer health care system. VTD/Alan Panebaker

Peter Sterling, a health care reform advocate, is taking a step deeper into politics with a new organization called Vermont Leads: Single Payer Now!

With help from other advocates and the national Service Employees International Union, Sterling has created a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization that plans to launch a media and grassroots campaign for a publicly funded health care system.

Sterling, executive director of the Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security Education Fund, said he got together a board and partnered with SEIU because it is a crucial time for the single-payer movement toward a publicly funded universal health care system.

“The reason we’re doing it now is we feel like we’re in a very dangerous time for single payer,” Sterling said. “The opposition is using the fear of the unknown to kind of derail reform.”

That opposition, Sterling said, comes from groups like the National Federation of Independent Businesses and Vermonters for Health Care Freedom (which has run television ads criticizing the Shumlin administration’s efforts to reform the state’s health care system).

The money the group will spend on advertising, around $100,000 or so, Sterling said, will come from SEIU.

Sterling said he hopes to counter the anti-reform message, especially since there will be major announcements coming out in the next six months — including a proposed benefit package from the Green Mountain Care Board and a financing plan for the universal health care system in January.

The group will launch officially Thursday at an event in the Pavilion Auditorium in Montpelier. Perhaps not surprisingly, Gov. Peter Shumlin — who campaigned on the single payer issue — will give a speech.

Sterling said there is no relationship between Vermont Leads and Shumlin’s re-election campaign other than the fact that they both support single payer.

Alex MacLean, secretary of Civil and Military Affairs for the Shumlin administration, said the group has been apprising the governor of its actions but that is all.

Surprisingly, it seems the relationship that has received the most attention has been the SEIU reach into Vermont.

In an article published Monday on the website, labor journalist and lawyer Steve Early implied that the SEIU’s efforts to campaign for single payer are really an effort to squeeze out other unions in a quest to unionize home care workers.

Matt McDonald, an SEIU staff member who will be on the Vermont Leads board with Sterling and five others, said the union does have a goal of organizing home care workers in Vermont. He said that goal coincides with efforts to create a single-payer system. Although the SEIU does not have a presence in the state already, McDonald said the organization works on health care reform issues throughout the country and with a possible adverse ruling on the federal health care law, reform could lie with the states.

McDonald said SEIU leadership met with Gov. Peter Shumlin at a Democratic Governors Association event and thought what was happening in Vermont was the most interesting and exciting in the country.

“We thought we should explore more how we could be helpful,” he said. “There was a paid media campaign under way by the opposition. There was a role and a space we thought we could provide.”

McDonald said the union does not plan to replace or replicate other labor movements like the grassroots-organizing Vermont Workers’ Center.

Critics of Vermont’s health care reform efforts are skeptical of the new organization ramping up during election season.

Jeff Wennberg, executive director of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, also a 501(c)(4), said Vermont Leads appears to be an organization set up to funnel $100,000 of union money into the state.

Wennberg said he is frustrated by the fact that the Shumlin administration and health care reform advocates downplay concerns raised by groups like his that the state keeps punting plans to fund the single payer system.

“They refuse to respond to our information and arguments and simply dismiss us as being supported by out-of-state money,” he said.

Wennberg said health care reform proponents say groups like his are spreading misinformation while refusing to engage in substantive debates about the issue. He said he is concerned the ad campaign will further drown out their voice.

But Wendell Potter, a former insurance company executive and now a health care reform advocate, sees it the other way.

Potter will be at the group’s opening press event Thursday.

He said he will be working to help people communicate the message of what single payer is and help health care reform advocates anticipate the opposition they will face. He said insurance companies and other vested interests are already funding efforts to dismantle health care reform in Vermont.

“It’s not a stretch at all to think the state will be a battleground,” Potter said. “It will be. What’s happening in Vermont is certainly of concern to the insurance industry and others who have a financial interest in the status quo.”

Alan Panebaker

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