Op-Ed: Vermont must lead on health care

By:  James Haslam
Burlington Free Press

At a public forum on health care in White River Junction, Dave Reynolds, the health care representative from Sen. Bernie Sanders' office, compared an American hospital with a Canadian hospital. Both hospitals had 900 beds; both were in urban centers and were teaching hospitals, as well. The American hospital was connected with Duke University in North Carolina; the Canadian one was in Toronto.

"The Duke hospital," he said, "had 900 beds and 900 people in the billing office. The Toronto hospital has 900 beds and three people in the billing office."

This comparison is a perfect metaphor for the state of the American health care system. As the federal health care "reform" debate in Washington plods on, it has become clear that the few people profiting off our health are the ones pulling the strings in Washington -- the centerpiece of the "reform" is a national mandate for people to buy private health care insurance products.

This, however, is thankfully not the case in Vermont. Here our legislators actually listen to us. Every day more and more Vermonters are stepping up to support our state making the moral commitment to ensure that everyone has access to good quality health care. To this end the Vermont Workers' Center (VWC) believes that the struggle for equitable health care has to be first won on a state level -- exactly how Canada's national healthcare system started, in Saskatchewan in 1962.

This fall the VWC sponsored people's forums on health care in counties around the state, where Vermonters described their suffering under the present system before a panel of local legislators. The 600 Vermonters who have attended these forums, including over 50 legislators, discussed how our state can make the moral commitment to recognize and protect the fundamental human right to health care for all Vermonters.

Many Vermonters have asked how we can afford this change. But we believe the real question is: How can we afford our broken system any longer? Its soaring costs, rising 20-30 percent every year, are breaking the backs of local, school and state budgets, forcing people out of work and curtailing much-needed public services. Every day we are finding more and more people who agree with us.

Sen. Sanders and other progressives are fighting to help facilitate our struggle for equitable health care through a "State's Right to Innovate" amendment to the federal health care bills. This amendment would provide federal assistance for some of the technical issues that will arise in the transition from our current mess to a system that makes sense, such as granting waivers to states that wish to pool together health care tax dollars from Medicare and Medicaid into their own self-insurance plan that covers everyone. If this would pass, it would be a gift because it would make our job of getting out of that mess easier. But we can and we must move forward no matter what and simply request the federal waivers and other assistance we need. The biggest obstacle to moving toward health care for all in Vermont is not the technical barriers, but the political will.

We have had decades of trying a free-market approach to health care, and it has only produced massive amounts of suffering, 47 million uninsured and 900 beds with 900 billing personnel. But we do know that we can no longer wait for somebody to fix it for us. As Vermonters, we need to push for change now, and we can do it in 2010.

James Haslam is the director of the Vermont Workers' Center, which is based in Burlington and which coordinates the Healthcare Is A Human Right Campaign.