After Governor Halts Universal Health Care, Vermonters Burn Medical Bills

Activists burn their medical bills to protest their governor’s decision to give up on single-payer CREDIT: COURTESY OF VERMONT WORKERS CENTER
Activists burn their medical bills to protest their governor’s decision to give up on single-payer CREDIT: COURTESY OF VERMONT WORKERS CENTER

Proponents of universal health care in Vermont aren’t pleased with their governor’s recent decision to abandon the state’s ambitious plans to build a single-payer system. In protest, more than 100 activists gathered at the statehouse on Thursday to burn their medical bills.

In 2011, the Vermont legislature approved Act 48, which requires the state to create the first single-payer system in the country by 2017. Under that model, all medically necessary services would be covered by the government, which could contract with private organizations to deliver the actual services. Supporters hoped that Vermont’s proposed health care reforms would serve as a model for the rest of the nation, potentially inspiring other states to work on their own government-funded systems.

But this week, Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) announced that “this is not the right time” to move forward with the state’s proposal, saying it will result in massive tax hikes that he doesn’t feel comfortable authorizing. A single-payer program will cost Vermont an estimated $3 billion per year by the end of the decade, and Shumlin said he simply doesn’t know how to cover those costs.

The Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign, a grassroots coalition of activists that has been pushing to reframe health care as a public good, is criticizing Shumlin for failing to follow through on Act 48. In a statement released this week, they called the governor’s decision “a slap in the face of many thousands of Vermont residents who suffer from poor health and financial hardship,” and said he’s still obligated to move forward with single-payer unless that law is officially repealed.

On Thursday, demonstrators rallied at the statehouse to protest Shumlin’s decision. Local news outlets reported that “the tone of the event was angry.” After the crowd shared stories about struggling to afford the medical care they need, they lit their bills on fire.

“Time and again I’m forced to choose whether to meet my medical needs or pay other bills,” protester Stauch Blaise told fellow activists at the event. “Governor Shumlin has burned all of us by bailing on universal health care, and now it’s time for the legislature to assume leadership and follow through with Act 48.”

Attendees also marched into the building to deliver burnt toast to the governor’s office, declaring that his political career is “toast” if he abandons single-payer.

CREDIT: Courtesy of the Vermont Workers Center
CREDIT: Courtesy of the Vermont Workers Center

Shumlin has previously been a big supporter of single-payer, and even campaigned on the issue in 2010. But his most recent re-election was an unexpectedly close one, and some analysts suggest he just doesn’t have enough political capital right now to push through dramatic reforms.

Plus, recent political controversies surrounding Obamacare have perhaps made it more difficult for Vermont to move forward. The state used to have a contract with Jonathan Gruber — the health care economist who recently made national headlines for suggesting that Obamacare only passed because of “the stupidity of the American voter” — to help build its single-payer system. But after Gruber’s comments were widely publicized, Vermont officials came under pressure to cut ties with Gruber, and quietly wrapped up his contract a few weeks ago.

Vermont activists’ bill-burning protests coincide with the release of a survey conducted by the New York Times and CBS News on the high cost of medical bills in the United States. That poll found that 46 percent of Americans describe the affordability of basic medical care as a “hardship.” A similar portion of respondents, 43 percent, said they would favor a single-payer system to help address the issue.