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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Senate Committee To Forge Ahead With Single Payer Plan

Frustrated by the lack of movement this year by the Shumlin Administration, the Vermont Senate is pressing forward with legislation related to single payer health care. And while lawmakers won’t take up the issue of public financing this year, they are assuming a more assertive role in the health care reform process.

When it comes to health care reform, Gov. Peter Shumlin has largely been in the driver’s seat. It was his administration that wrote the single-payer legislation passed by lawmakers in 2011. And it’s his executive branch appointees that have largely developed the policies surrounding the system of universal coverage.

"What we in the Senate are doing is trying to identify those areas of health care reform that really don't need to wait for us to move the ball downfield." - Sen. Tim Ashe, chairman, Senate Finance Committee

But the administration’s failure to deliver a public financing plan this year, as it had promised, has ruffled some feathers in the Statehouse. And key legislators are now looking to assume a more lead role in the creation of the single-payer program.

Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P Chittenden, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, says his committee will vote on a bill this Friday that aims to begin forcing some key decisions about what the new system will look like.

“This is an important opportunity for us as legislators, distinct from the administration, to step back and say, if we’re serious about saving money, if we’re serious about covering everybody, and if we’re serious about making sure that everyone has at least decent coverage, then going on a year-to-year basis of saying, ‘oh we’ll figure it out next year’ at one point it becomes a little bit absurd to keep kicking the can down the road in that way,” Ashe said Wednesday.

Ashe’s bill would lead to key decisions about the benefits package in the single payer system, such as whether to include dental or eye care. The bill would also impose new deadlines on the Shumlin Administration for proposing a public financing plan. And Ashe says the legislation seeks a more expeditious timeline for selecting a third-party administrator to oversee the state-established insurance program.

Ashe says the Senate isn’t looking to answer all the questions surrounding the new system this year.

“Perhaps a more realistic approach at this time is to map out some of the things we would like to do, and then ask the administration to do it,” Ashe said.

Robin Lunge, director of health care reform for the Shumlin Administration, says she appreciates the frustration some lawmakers feel about the pace of reform. But she says the administration has made progress in many of the arenas lawmakers seem keen on discussing.

“My frustration in return is simply that we have a lot of that information that we’ve been offering to share, so I welcome the opportunity to do that now,” Lunge said Wednesday.

Lunge said existing state and federal laws have pretty much established what the benefits package under Green Mountain Care – the name given to the new system – is going to look like.

Act 48, the 2011 law that set Vermont on a path toward single-payer, ensures a minimum benefits package. Lunge says that between that and the federal Affordable Care Act, the state has a solid handle on what benefits will consist of, and how much they’re likely to cost.

Senate President John Campbell earlier this year convened the chairs of five committees to discuss his body’s role in the reform process. Campbell says he thinks lawmakers need to do their own due diligence, instead of relying solely on information and policies brought before them by the administration.

Ashe says the bill coming out if him committee this week is a work in progress.

“What we in the Senate are doing is trying to identify those areas of health care reform that really don’t need to wait for us to move the ball down field,” Ashe says.

Whatever their differences now, legislative leaders and administration officials say they’re all committed to pursuing the goals set out in Act 48. And Lunge and Ashe say they’re confident they’ll be able to work collaboratively to put together the reform package that lawmakers are scheduled to vote on in 2015.

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