BENNINGTON -- Gov. Peter Shumlin and Sen. Dick Sears visited the Banner offices Wednesday afternoon.
Questions regarding Vermont Health Connect, statewide health care, and education were presented during their visit.
Here is what Gov. Shumlin had to say in response: Q: Do you think Vermonters are clear on how to enroll in Vermont Health Connect? Do they understand the costs involved and what exactly they have to do?
A: I think this is the biggest transformation in health care driven by the federal government in many years. There's no question that the new options can be confusing, they can seem overwhelming to both individuals and small businesses. That's why we've engaged a lot of navigators to help educate Vermonters about the new world that President Obama and congress has brought to our health care system. We're using all of the resources the federal government has given us to help educate people to their bill and I think we're going to succeed. Now, that doesn't mean there's not still confusion out there, but it does mean that between navigators, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, our hospitals and providers and the website, Vermont Health Connect, if you have problems, call a navigator and they'll help you. My own view is that because Vermonters are curious and informed, we're actually ahead of most other states in getting folks to understand what the choices are and how to sign up.
Q: People are wondering if they should be trying to register for health insurance now or wait for the "national website fiasco to settle." What are your thoughts?
A: Our website, even with its challenges and problems, is in better shape than the federal site. So, the only time the federal site is a problem for us is when it's down. Our site has never been down. People have been signing up and using it and it's gotten better every single week. When the federal site goes down, which has happened, that's a problem, but as long as the federal site is up, we are interacting with the hub that gets you your financial data to find out what your subsidy is.
If you make $46,000 or less as an individual or $96,000 or less as a family, which are most Vermont families, you will qualify for some form of subsidy to help you pay for the health insurance that you're struggling to pay for. This is, I think, the best-kept secret in Vermont right now.
Q: How will women and children or individuals covered by state health insurance be affected by these changes?
A: They won't be affected by this because they are part of companies with more than 50 employees. Right now, the federal law prescribes that if you are in an employer of 50 or larger, you're not in the pool yet -- you're not eligible for Vermont Health Connect.
Q: A common complaint in Bennington County seems to be the lack of general physicians throughout and the fact that many insurance carriers are not accepted at the ones that are available. How, if at all, do you plan to address this issue?
A: Let's remember that this is a national problem. There is a national shortage of primary care providers in America. As our group of doctors grows older and closer to retirement age, this is a problem we need to address. One of the things we're trying to do in Vermont's health care system is to move from a system of compensation for providers that are currently "fee for service," or quantity-driven, to one where we provide payment for per patient care, or quality of life instead of quantity of health care. My view is that that is going to allow primary care providers to get insurance companies off of their backs and go and do what they were trained to do, which is to provide quality health care. Our providers in hospitals are working with us to transform the way we compensate care in Vermont. We're making real progress.
Q: Given how health care reform has played out thus far, do you think similar problems will arise once the single-payer health system (potentially) rolls out in three years? What have you learned from technical glitches and the like this time around that may prove useful in the future?
A: First of all, you have to know my position on this bill. I didn't vote for the Affordable Care Act. I wasn't governor when it passed. As a governor, I have two choices: Go with the federal hub -- really glad we didn't do that, or take federal money and build your own exchange. That has not been without it's challenges, but I'm really glad we did that because our website is up and functioning, it's one of the best in the country and it will be even better a month from now. So, I'm pleased that Vermont chose to do it our own way, go our own way, and with all the potholes we've faced. We're going to get it done and we're going to get it fixed.
My own view is that if you pass a bill that keeps all special interests happy -- the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, all the folks that are making so much money off of the system -- it's unlikely that you're going to accomplish the goals that we need to accomplish in Vermont, and they are two-fold: Everyone having heath insurance because they're residents of the state of Vermont, not because of whether they're rich or poor or where they're lucky enough to work or not, and second, a system that delivers quality health care while bending the cost curve. Obamacare sets the platform for us to begin that process, but it doesn't get us anywhere near where we need to go.
The president has said to me, "Hey, I didn't get everything I wanted from this bill." Like most things in Washington, there was more compromise than I wish, but I want the states to take it, improve it, and be laboratories for change, and I think that's exactly what we should do in Vermont.
What we're trying to do in Vermont and what Obamacare is doing is so different that I feel it would be a mistake to compare the two efforts. We're trying to simplify the system. Because there was no public option in Obamacare, it complicates an already complicated system.
Q: You said this summer that you support the move toward more local control of education, that you hope you're fostering an environment where communities, like North Bennington, can decide their own "destiny" without interference from the state. Will your administration continue to support this stand and foster an environment where communities make education decisions that are in their best interest?
A: My feeling is that the best decisions about education are made locally. I won't agree with all the decisions that are made, but I want us to continue to make them the way we make them -- have a heated debate, everyone gets together, we duke it out, we vote, we make a difference, and then we make it work. I don't think this is particularly a model for education, but I want others to have the power to make decisions just like people in North Bennington did. Generally, communities will make better decisions about the future of their schools than Montpelier. I've always said, if you want to see a mess, ask Montpelier to essentially decide how each school should be run, who should consolidate and who shouldn't, what schools should stay open and what schools should close, that would be a nightmare. I think we have to stand by local control even if the local community doesn't always make a decision that we agree with.
Contact Elizabeth A. Conkey at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @bethconkey.