Single Payer Hits Snag As Shumlin Falters At Polls

Nov 10, 2014

Gov. Peter Shumlin had previously vowed to make Vermont the first state in the country to adopt a single-payer health care system. But after a near miss in last week’s election, the Democrat might to be backing away from that pledge.

The promise of single-payer health care has been part and parcel of Shumlin’s political identity. From the kickoff of his inaugural gubernatorial campaign in 2010, to the launch of his latest reelection bid this fall, his rhetoric has been unwavering.

“We are moving forward on the nation’s first single-payer health care system that contains costs, takes the burden off of employers and simplifies the system for all Vermonters,” Shumlin said at a campaign event in September. “I was elected to get tough things done. And this may well be the toughest. But I will not rest until it is done.”

Then came the election, when Shumlin very nearly lost his job to a GOP challenger who tapped into a deep vein of anti-incumbent sentiment. And literally overnight, the governor began recalibrating his message on single payer.

The day after the election, reporters asked Shumlin about the future of what had been his cornerstone policy agenda.

“I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to take the information from this election, loud and clear message, and evaluate every assumption we’ve made to make sure we’re getting it right,” Shumlin said. “That’s what I pledge to do.”

It was perhaps the first time the governor did not use a question about single payer to launch into his well-worn case for its necessity. And it’s quite a turnabout for a man often dubbed “the pro-single-payer governor.”

Dustin Degree is a former aide to Republican Gov. James Douglas who rode the GOP wave to a victory in a senate race in Franklin County. Degree says Shumlin would be right to read the results of the election as a rebuke of single payer.

“I think if anything, the governor’s race was a referendum … on single payer … I hope that it means that we can actually sit down at the table and have an honest conversation about how we can make health care more accessible and more affordable without having to talk about single payer every time we do it,” Degree says.

"I think if anything, the governor's race was a referendum ... on single payer." - Dustin Degree, Republican senator-elect from Franklin County

Shumlin hasn’t said he’ll shelve single payer, and it’s possible he’ll resume his role as cheerleader for the concept once the dust from this election settles.

But as problems with the state’s online health insurance exchange mount, the appetite for single payer in the Legislature has subsided somewhat, even among some of Shumlin’s closest Democratic allies.

Rep. Mike Fisher, the chairman of the House Committee on Health Care, was among the Democratic casualties in an election that saw Republicans pick up nine seats in the Vermont House, and two in the Senate.

Fisher says he doesn’t attribute his loss solely, or even primarily, to his support for a publicly financed health care system. But he says Democrats’ poor showing last Tuesday will no doubt complicate the push for single payer.  

“The prospect of truly moving towards a unified financing system was … a very difficult prospect before (the) election. And (the) election didn’t make it easier,” Fisher says.

"Many, many single-payer candidates ... won for office in Hardwick, in Bennington, in Burlington, in Winooski, in Barre." - Peter Sterling, health reform advocate

  Single-payer advocates say the issue was near the bottom of the list of factors in Tuesday results. And Peter Sterling, head of the pro-single-payer group Vermont Leads, says candidates who support publicly funded health care did better, on the whole, than those who oppose it.

“Many, many single-payer candidates … won for office in Hardwick, in Bennington, in Burlington, in Winooski, in Barre – I could go on,” Sterling says.

Sterling also says that Shumlin’s GOP challenger, Scott Milne, famously said he was “agnostic” on single-payer. And he notes that the only anti-single-payer candidate in the race, Libertarian Dan Feliciano, got less than 5 percent of the vote.

A national Pew survey conducted in early October found that while 73 percent of people with “consistently conservative attitudes” planned to vote in the 2014 midterm elections, only 58 percent of voters with “consistently liberal attitudes” planned to cast ballots.

Sterling says that if Peter Shumlin had pursued single payer more vigorously, then left-leaning voters in Vermont, at least, would have turned out to thank him. Nearly 50,000 fewer Vermonters voted in 2014 than in 2010. Sterling says it’s the disaffected single-payer proponents that decided to sit this one out.

“And I think when we look back at the last session, maybe the decision not to release the financing package, or benefit package, before this election will be thought of as one that could have been done differently,” Sterling says. “I think once when we can tell Vermonters, this is how much single payer is going to cost you, this is what you’re going to get, I think we’ll see increased public support for it.”

James Haslam, head of the Vermont Workers Center, agrees. Haslam’s organization helped galvanize the “Health Care is a Human Right Campaign,” whose advocacy for single-payer in 2010 helped mobilize electoral support for Shumlin.

Haslam says Shumlin and House and Senate democrats could suffer a far worse electoral fate in 2016 if they back away from single-payer.

As for what happened last Tuesday, Haslam says “people just stayed home. People didn’t come out to vote because they didn’t have much to come out for.”

While Republicans and Democrats may be at odds on some aspects of health care reform, there’s near universal agreement on the need for change.

Fred Baser, the Republican challenger who defeated Mike Fisher, says he doesn’t embrace the concept of a “universal system.” But he says he’ll be eager to work with Democrats on other aspects of their health care reform plank.

“My positon on health care right from the get go, which I have in black and white, was that I support universal health care,” Baser says. “I think Vermonters want it. I think our current system unfair to many people. I think it’s kind of broken in many ways.”

Shumlin is required by law to submit a financing package for single-payer by January. It remains to be seen how vigorously he’ll urge lawmakers to support it.