Single Payer in Vermont? Well, Not Exactly

In just a few days, Vermont’s Governor Peter Shumlin will sign into law what the media is calling “single payer health care reform.” But is it?

Vermont has certainly demonstrated more enthusiasm for a single payer approach than any other state. The Governor and key Democratic legislators have supported the concept, the state has a well-organized lobbying group in Vermont for Single Payer, and a state-funded study earlier this year estimated that a single payer approach could dramatically reduce health care costs. The major result has been passage in the past month by both of the state’s legislative chambers of the bill that Governor Shumlin indicates that he will sign.

So does this mean that Vermont is ready to upend its existing health care financing system and replace it with a French or British-style system? Not exactly.

The versions of the bill passed by Vermont’s House and Senate are each far, far more tentative than committed single payer advocates would wish, and have already been subject to scathing criticism by national single payer advocates. The bill provides for the creation of the legal framework of a public insurance program, to be called Green Mountain Care, but includes no funding mechanism, defines no benefit standards, is vague on the future roles of private insurers, and is silent on exactly how existing federal programs are to be incorporated.

What the bill does do is to establish the state exchange required by the Accountable Care Act, encourage experimental capitated payment structures, and create a Board for Green Mountain Care with responsibility for examining funding, benefit, and other issues, with recommendations to be submitted to the state legislature in 2013.

Even if the Board’s proposals are very strongly in favor of a single payer system, they will face some considerable obstacles to implementation.

Because the present bill’s approach to creation of a new system is to allow two years for development of recommendations, any implementing legislation will be delayed until 2013 at the earliest, giving opponents considerable time to organize and fund their fight. At the same time, whatever funding structure the Board recommends will inevitably result in some winners and some losers—who will almost certainly oppose the proposal—even if the net result is a gain for Vermont’s citizens.

While small businesses are expected to get coverage through the state’s planned exchange, and thus could be forced to participate in a future state-controlled single payer plan, larger employers present more of a problem. If a single payer plan could be shown to be less costly, such employers would presumably be willing to participate. If they are not persuaded of the merits of single payer, however, they could rely on ERISA law to keep their employees out of the new program.

The bigger obstacles, however, are likely to be at the federal level. The Accountable Care Act allows states to opt out of federal reform starting in 2017, but not before. (Although an earlier date has been proposed, it has limited support). The pooling of federal funds envisioned by Vermont’s single payer advocates would require negotiations with Medicare, Medicaid, TRICARE, and Public Health administrators, all in the face of opposition from lobbyists for insurers, providers, and businesses who fear the impacts of a single payer structure on their revenues and profits. And who would be willing to guess whether or not in 2013 the administration in Washington DC is favorable towards any kind of health care reform?

Roger Collier was formerly CEO of a national health care consulting firm. His experience includes the design and implementation of innovative health care programs for HMOs, health insurers, and state and federal agencies.  He is editor of Health Care REFORM UPDATE.

1 reply »

  1. As a health care provider in the state of Vermont, do you see the future of Green Mountain Care supporting competition for services? I work in a private practice that prides itself on “quality” versus quantity. We may be taking a hit financially, but we have great patient results. I wonder if our practice will be able to continue this type of care in the Reform environment.