Single-payer advocacy group gets boost from NEA, poll shows support for health reform

Navigator Peter Sterling, director of the Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security, at his table in the Motor Vehicle Department lobby in Montpelier. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

Vermont Leads director Peter Sterling. VTDigger file photo

The single-payer advocacy group Vermont Leads is back in action with an $80,000 infusion of cash from the National Education Association, the nation’s largest union.

The grassroots organization has returned with a new poll it says illustrates broad support for Vermont’s health care reform agenda.

Peter Sterling, the group’s director, said the poll wasn’t conducted to make a splash in the media, but to help the NEA gauge public opinion on single-payer before throwing its support behind the initiative.

“We support Green Mountain Care, and believe it is an outstanding opportunity for Vermont to show the rest of the country that universally available, portable and publicly funded health care can work for all Vermonters,” Vermont NEA President Martha Allen said in a statement.

They are also interested because teachers’ unions will eventually be required to purchase health insurance through the state 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 disappear.

Darren Allen, a spokesman for Vermont NEA, said, “The health insurance that’s been built up over 40 years through VHEHI will eventually cease to exist, whether that’s in 2017, 2018 or 2020.”

VHEHI is the health insurance offered through Vermont NEA, which covers 40,000 members.

Vermont’s planned universal health care program is likely to secure better benefits for teachers — and the rest of Vermonters – than what’s offered by the exchanges.

Outside money

Vermont Leads was founded by single-payer advocates in May 2012 to defend Act 48 through its first electoral cycle, Sterling said. It lay dormant after its original union sponsor pulled its funding.

The group maintained a presence on social media, but the NEA money will allow it to do education and outreach work during the upcoming election.

“I don’t know if (Green Mountain Care) is at risk. I think it’s important to make sure that legislators move through this (election) cycle feeling like health care reform isn’t going to drag them down,” Sterling said.

But Sterling did raise the specter that Vermont could become awash in outside money as the state’s health reform agenda rolls forward.

“I think there’s always a concern that super PACs are going to drop unlimited dollars to run a disinformation campaign on universal health care,” he said.

Darcie Johnston, a staunch opponent of single-payer with the advocacy group Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, doesn’t think it will take that much to derail reform.

“This is a real battleground, they may have an advantage if this was a ballot initiative, but this is about control of the Legislature,” Johnston said. “I think that’s why the NEA is doing this.”

Johnston isn’t suggesting that Republicans could gain control of the Legislature in November, she said, but if the GOP picks up 10 to 15 legislative seats, it could potentially block passage of a financing plan for Green Mountain Care – the next hurdle for single-payer.

Poll results

In addition to the money the NEA spent to revitalize Vermont Leads, they spent another $35,000 on a poll to measure public support for Green Mountain Care.

Boston-based Democratic polling firm Kiley and Co. performed the poll over a three-day period in mid-January, which Sterling pointed out was the height of blowback against the troubled rollout of Vermont Health Connect.

Still, close to half of the respondents said they had some confidence that the state government would do a good job of running the health care system, he said.

Only 11 percent said they had a “great deal” of confidence, but 38 percent said they had a “fair amount” in the state’s capability.

Another 28 percent said they had “not very much” confidence the state could manage the health care system.

The 502 respondents were selected using randomized cellphone and landline numbers and were screened for registered to voters.

Quotas for gender, county and employment status were used to ensure the sample is reflective of Vermont’s electorate.

When respondents were asked if they favored or opposed single-payer health care system for Vermont, without any additional information the results were mixed.

Twenty-five percent responded they were opposed, 24 in favor and 51 said they didn’t know enough to have a firm opinion.

After being read a brief description and rationale for Green Mountain Care, those in favor rose to 55 percent with 42 percent opposed.

The margin of support drops to 51 percent in favor, 43 percent opposed when the question is framed around whether they would still support universal health care if it meant the largest tax increase in state history.

The respondents split along partisan lines with Democrats overwhelmingly in favor and Republicans opposing single-payer.

“I think that the poll proves that it’s going to be very difficult to move a certain block of people out of their preconceived notion that government involvement in health care isn’t going to be a good thing,” Sterling said. “Our efforts are better focused on educating the majority of Vermonters who are already with us.”

However, individual aspects of health reform polled well across party lines, Sterling said.

Eighty-six percent said they favored making health care available to all Vermonters, and 70 percent said they favored a system that would have the government pay medical bills directly instead of through insurance companies.

More respondents than not said they thought Green Mountain Care would increase their health care costs, while also limiting their access to health care.

“Even though Vermonters think they’re going to pay more, or at least the same, or they’re going to have the same or worse access to health care, they still want it to happen. And that’s what I think is the most remarkable part of this,” Sterling said.

That indicates that support for health care reform isn’t transactional for Vermonters, meaning they’re not focused on what they stand to gain in the new system, Sterling said.

“Vermonters view the need to do health care reform as a value,” he said. “They view it as something that is important in their world view.”

Johnston keyed in on results from the poll that show Vermonters believe the quality of health care in the state is currently good or excellent and that 84 percent of Vermonters are satisfied with their current health care.

The poll also reveals that women are more likely than men to support single-payer, and the young are more likely to support it than the old.

Education is also indicative of support, with college graduates more likely to favor single-payer than those without a college education. Support ticks up further among those with graduate degrees.

Thirty-six percent of respondents said they would be more inclined to support a legislator who voted to move forward with Green Mountain Care, another 39 percent said it would make no difference, and 26 percent said they would be less inclined.

The poll also revealed the importance of semantics when it comes to talking about health care reform.

The phrase Affordable Care Act polled better than Obamacare, and universal health care fared better than single-payer.

“If we were to start over branding-wise we probably would, but it’s in the lexicon and it’s something people understand,” Sterling said.

Morgan True

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