Albright: Health Care Compromise

Jul 5, 2017

Governor Phil Scott’s proposal to create a statewide contract for teachers’ health care coverage landed with a thud in the State House last April. Lawmakers were furious that it came so late in the session. Opponents said the plan would kill collective bargaining and weaken local control; supporters said it would lower property taxes.

But that battle’s over – at least for now – leaving me to wonder if $13 million in savings spread over hundreds of thousands of taxpayers will fatten any of our wallets very much. And why single out public school employees? They already pay almost as much, on average, for their health insurance plans as many private sector workers, though how much they contribute varies, according to their contracts.

And about a third of those contracts have already been negotiated for next year, so it seems likely that rather than re-open those Pandora’s boxes, beleaguered superintendents (whose turnover rate hovers at 30 percent) will look elsewhere for savings. I worry that some of the poorest, rural districts may have to cut back programs—like remedial reading or after school activities—that help disadvantaged kids.

Now lawmakers will have to explain to constituents why they kicked the can down the road, to local school boards. Teacher salaries and benefits already vary widely across the state, and those inequities may get worse as each district scrambles to meet this last-minute mandate. Yes, the compromise may have, in principle, preserved collective bargaining rights. But in practice, it will make negotiating and budgeting at the local level much harder.

This kind of piecemeal solution, affecting only one group of workers, makes me wish that Scott’s predecessor, Peter Shumlin, had been able to keep his promise to bring single payer health care to Vermont. When it became clear that would mean higher taxes, he pulled the plug. But as it is, all of us consumers are digging deeper in our pockets to cover our health care costs each year.

Some number crunchers say that the savings realized in single payer systems are roughly equal to the tax increases they incur. If they’re right, I’d personally rather send those additional dollars to Montpelier with my tax form, so that state government - as single payer - can realize the economies of scale that could bring down health care costs for everyone. And if Vermont could lead the way for the nation — so much the better.