"We have a problem," said House Speaker Shap Smith of Vermont. "We need to solve it."
This comment reflects a no-nonsense, hands-on, can-do attitude you rarely find in legislative bodies these days. Instead, when most so-called leaders are confronted with a problem, they tend to say, "We need to cover it up," or, "Let's turn this thing into a political football." But Smith and a big majority of his Vermont colleagues refused to play games with one of the biggest issues confronting them and the people of every state: affordable health care for all.
They knew that the current high-cost, low-quality, you're-on-your-own system is literally killing people, even as it is draining the budgets of governments and businesses. Costs of health care in Vermont have doubled in the last decade to roughly $5 billion a year and continue to go up by $1 million a day -- even as 47,000 Vermonters have no coverage and many others only have D.G.S. policies: Don't Get Sick.
Angry about this, a hardy group of Vermonters have spent more than a decade organizing a strong grassroots coalition for universal health care, educating both the public and politicians on the issue and solutions. The sparkplug of this effort has been Dr. Deb Richter, who was so appalled by the callous bureaucracy and greed of insurance corporations that she moved her family and medical practice to Vermont in 1999 specifically to build such a coalition. She has traveled tirelessly ever since, giving hundreds of talks to every kind of group, from churches to chambers of commerce.
Richter has a gift for speaking in pragmatic, non-ideological terms that reach a breadth of audiences. For example, viewing health care as an essential public service, rather than as a commodity to be sold and rationed by crass profiteers, she compares it to the fire department -- "something people don't want to use, but want in place, just in case."
As for people who say they don't see why they should pay for Joe's hospitalization, she points out that "Joe's in the bed you're going to be in tomorrow. That's why we have to have health care as a public good."
This year, Vermont's grassroots effort culminated in H.202 -- a bill to establish a state health clearinghouse (called an "exchange") with the authority to set up a single-payer style system to be called Green Mountain Care.
Such exchanges, by the way, were authorized by a provision that Sen. Kent Conrad quietly included in President Obama's health insurance overhaul last year. While Republicans and some corporate Democrats were making a show of killing any options for public insurance policies in that bill, Conrad gave the states the ability to create their own public systems.
The Vermont proposal would not establish the Green Mountain program immediately. Instead, H.202 provides a gradual process to involve the citizenry in implementing a publicly funded system over the next few years. Even when fully available, the program won't be a pure single-payer system, for it still allows private insurers to sell policies. But what an important advance it offers!
It breaks the stranglehold that profiteers have on people's health. Green Mountain would assure coverage for everyone, cut the crushing costs and waste of the corporate system, decouple health care from one's job, and take the financial burden of health insurance off the ledgers of businesses.
It was a good bill, so naturally it was opposed by the usual special interests and know-nothings -- one House Republican decried the very idea of universal coverage, calling it the "keystone in the arch of socialism." But he was hooted down -- and with stout public support, Green Mountain Care passed the House in March, 92-49, and the Senate in April, 21-9.
On May 26, Gov. Pete Shumlin, who had made this issue central to his campaign last year, signed H.202, making Vermont first in the nation to go to the core of necessary reform by enacting a publicly funded health insurance law.
Shumlin then gave the ceremony an appropriate punctuation point by handing his signing pen to Richter, calling her "the backbone" of the grassroots movement that produced this important advance for the common good.
Cynics keep telling us that we can't change the corporate order. But, as we see in Vermont, those who say it can't be done should not interrupt those who are doing it. For information, go to www.vermontforsinglepayer.org.