Haslam: Let’s keep our eyes on the prize for a real universal health care system

Editor’s note: James Haslam is the executive director of the Vermont Workers’ Center, which coordinates the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign. More information is available at

When did the people’s need for universal health care get hijacked by the money-making interests of big insurers, big business and big hospitals? Was it when federal health reformers bowed to the health industry by setting up a marketplace that is about to channel significant public subsidies to private insurance companies? Was it when the governor announced we can only get a health care system that meets every person’s needs if it saves the state money? Or was it last week when corporate lobbyists presented to Vermont legislators a financing “study” (more accurately, a memo) that worries about a “reduction in earnings” for companies that for decades have made gains on the backs of low-income people in need of care?

The illustrious list of groups behind this memo from universal health care opponents – ranging from the Chamber of Commerce to Blue Cross Blue Shield – reveals what’s been obvious to us from the start: the fight for universal health care pits corporate greed against people’s needs. No one knew this better than Peg Franzen, one of the driving forces of the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign, who died last week. Ms. Franzen, and the many people who were inspired by her, not only had a vision of how a people’s movement could secure rights for all, but also knew about the powerful forces opposing this vision. She knew we had to be ready for insurance companies, chambers of commerce and hospital administrations banding together to defeat universal health care. No one making money off the current system would give up without a fight: the power of money was bound to challenge the power of the people.

The new intervention from “Partners for Health Care Reform” (a suitably Orwellian name) proved this prediction accurate. Released precisely at a time when the governor is struggling with establishing the federally mandated but ill-conceived insurance “marketplace” – a move so off-putting it threatens the transition to Green Mountain Care, our universal system – their memo looks at health care as an industry, with the eyes of key industry players, and puts the industry’s price tag on the protection of people’s health.

At 6 p.m.on Tuesday, Dec. 3, at the Church of the Good Shepherd on 39 Washington St. in Barre, and Thursday, Dec. 5, at the Ilsley Library in Middlebury, there will be community meetings titled “Eyes on the Prize for Universal Healthcare” with local health care providers, health care policy makers and other community members.


It does so without challenging the basic truth that our state will, in fact, be able to meet its obligation and provide health care to all by using resources more effectively and raising them equitably. The damage done by interventions such as this lies not in the slight variance of cost figures, but in perpetuating the focus on the industry’s interests rather than people’s needs. When we talk about cost, why are the out-of-pocket costs paid primarily by those of us who become sick but can only afford skimpy coverage never included in any cost calculations? Why is the cost of shortened human lives, the stress on our families, lost productivity and unhealthy communities left out? Health care costs are not just costs to industry, yet it is industry players that monopolize media and policy attention.

Back in 2008, the Vermont Workers’ Center’s Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign set out to change this. By engaging thousands of people across the state in conversations about how the market-based health care system affects their lives, we collected heartbreaking stories of the human rights crisis in health care. Almost everyone told us about barriers to receiving needed care, from staggering out-of-pocket costs resulting in medical debts to dependence on employers in order to access whatever coverage happens to be on offer. Over the years we built a growing grassroots movement of people, which was instrumental in the 2011 passage of Act 48, Vermont’s universal health care law. What has changed since then? Has this health care crisis in our communities gone away? Are we no longer witnessing human suffering on a daily basis?

Far from it. In fact, the implementation of federal reform requirements threatens to make things worse in our state. Forced to eliminate key public programs – VHAP and Catamount – the current “reforms” will further privatize our health system, forcing individuals into a confusing marketplace propped up by public subsidies for the expensive products of private insurance companies. Since this is the exact opposite of simply providing health care as a public good for all (and also a whole lot more costly to the people, though a boon for industry), our state’s commitment to moving beyond the federal reforms and establishing universal health care in Vermont is now more important than ever.

At 6 p.m.on Tuesday, Dec. 3, at the Barre Labor Hall and Thursday, Dec. 5, at the Ilsley Library in Middlebury, there will be community meetings titled “Eyes on the Prize for Universal Healthcare” with local health care providers, health care policy makers and other community members. Only by coming together can we establish the first real universal health care system in this country, one that treats us like patients rather than consumers.


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