Protesters from across the state descended on Montpelier Thursday to voice their anger with Gov. Peter Shumlin’s decision to drop his pursuit of single payer health care.
More than 60 people stood in front of the Statehouse chanting slogans and singing protest songs.
“All people, all care, make the rich pay their share,” they shouted, “The system, let’s stop it, our health is not for profit.” And: “Down with Shumlin, up with the people.”
Many shared personal stories of struggles to afford health insurance or medical services, highlighting barriers to care such as high deductibles, copayments and other forms of cost sharing.
Several burned medical bills they said they would never be able to pay off.
Among those was Cindy Taylor, 48, of Bennington, who burned $3,000 in bills from two separate emergency room visits for her daughter that were close to eight years old, she said.
Taylor has had trouble staying covered, and when she is able to enroll in Medicaid for periods of time, it’s difficult to find doctors and dentists willing to accept her as a patient, she said.
Her daughter, now 24, had to drop out of college because of medical debt and is currently uninsured because she can’t afford the premiums on the Vermont Health Connect exchange, Taylor said.
Protesters focused their ire on Shumlin. The governor acknowledged the disappointment of his supporters in remarks Wednesday, but said the economics of single payer wouldn’t allow the program to move forward anytime soon. He called it “the biggest disappointment of my public service so far.”
But protesters were unappeased Thursday, asserting that Shumlin supported single payer while it was politically advantageous, but turned his back on the interests of the working class when he encountered resistance from business leaders.
They marched up to his ceremonial office in the Statehouse to deliver a platter of toast with the message, “Dear Shumlin, your career is toast.”
The protest was organized by the Workers Center, whose director James Haslam, strongly condemned the governor’s reversal on single payer as a betrayal of thousands of his supporters.
A message to the Board
They carried a massive and unflattering cardboard effigy of the governor to Montpelier’s City Center and packed a conference room where the Green Mountain Care Board was holding its weekly meeting.
Protesters demanded that the five board members affirm their commitment to press ahead with universal publicly financed health care, with or without Shumlin’s support.
After some tense moments, the board decided to forego other business and open the meeting for public comment. Many shared their stories with tears in their eyes, and voices that quavered at times.
“I make no assumptions of the board up there that they were fortunate enough to have a two-parent household, not live in poverty, not struggle … hopefully that’s what your family looks like, but that’s not what all families look like,” said Shela Linton, of Brattleboro.
“I’m a single parent of two, and like these youth over here I have a 20-year-old who is a sophomore in college. Currently, our health care system that I pay almost $8,000, $9,000 a year, doesn’t afford access to health care for either of us,” she said.
Her insurance doesn’t cover dental care, vision or certain mental health services, she said. The co-pays and deductibles make the insurance unusable in many situations.
“My daughter … has a $1,200 deductible, which means that every time she goes to the doctor it’s out-of-pocket,” Linton said.
Her daughter left college because of student loan debt, and now on top of that she has medical debt that she is unable to pay off, Linton added.
Melissa Davis-Bourque, 35, of St. Johnsbury is a stay-at-home mother of three who had one daughter in tow. She told the board that Shumlin’s reversal felt like a “sucker punch.”
“We do not have the luxury of letting (Shumlin) choose when it’s politically good for him while people are sick and dying, that’s not an option for us,” Bourque said.
The protesters who packed the board meeting are only a fraction of those who want Vermont to pursue sweeping health reforms. Many from the Northeast Kingdom could not make it to Montpelier in the middle of the day, Borque added.
A call for patience
Deb Richter, a longtime single payer advocate who regularly attends the Green Mountain Care Board’s meetings, tried to convince protesters that Shumlin is not their enemy.
“He’s the only governor in the country who raised this issue and put it in the forefront,” she said.
She urged them to have patience, and she says she is still optimistic Vermont will be the first state to have public universal health care, but that goal may need to achieved incrementally, as the governor indicated when he made his announcement Wednesday.
“This is like turning the Titanic,” she said, “Frankly, beating up on the governor I do not believe is really going to be helpful.”
Richter called on the protestors to take their message to the Legislature, which she said is now the most fertile ground for making progress on health reform.
“There’s a Legislature that can bring this up also, and I don’t think it would take much arm-twisting for the governor to go along with that,” Richter said.
“If they get 50 calls in every district, believe me they will bring this up,” she added.
Protesters made repeated demands that the board voice support for moving forward with the goals of Act 48 and commit to implementing a public universal health care program in 2017.
Board members said they appreciated the protesters’ frustrations and had heard the message, but were still processing the governor’s announcement and were unsure what they could do as a regulatory body.
“You can honestly yell at all of us, but we just heard this like you did,” said Green Mountain Care Board Chair, Al Gobeille.
“I’m not sure how you get this done, but I think we have to keep trying,” he added.
“Will you take a stand that this should be done?” a protester yelled back.
“I think we’ve all taken a stand, I’ve been working on this for three years. I’m not speaking for anyone else,” he said.
“I don’t have to apologize to anyone in this room … we’re committed to Act 48,” said Con Hogan, a board member and former secretary of the Agency of Human Services, drawing applause from the crowd.
“How much we can do, I don’t know. Al’s got the right answer there,” Con added, “But whatever we can do, we will do.”
The Green Mountain Care Board was created by Act 48 and given regulatory authority over some aspects of health insurance and hospital spending. It was also supposed to vet the governor’s benefit package and financing plan for single payer, and its approval would have been a prerequisite for implementing the program.
But absent a proposal from the governor, it’s unclear what role the board can play other than continuing their regulatory work focused on driving costs out of the system.
Board Member Alan Ramsay, a former family physician who practiced for more than three decades in Vermont, told the protesters their stories echoed those he witnessed while practicing medicine.
“It reminded me once again of the suffering that I saw in my practice for those 32 years because of people that did not have affordable high quality health care. It was not accessible to them,” Ramsay said.
He joined the board to help develop a system that is affordable, high quality and accessible, and affirmed the board’s commitment to those goals, he said.
“We’re at a better place now … than we were three years ago, if not for the very reason that this board understands the faulty nature of the health care system even better than we did when we all took this job,” Ramsay said.
He asked for the public’s trust and support as they continue to work toward the goals of Act 48.