State officials attend health care town hall

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BENNINGTON — Activist Vickie Lampron doesn't have health insurance.

When she did have coverage, it wasn't cheap. She and her husband paid $604 per month for a plan that had a $6,000 deductible.

Around October of last year, Lampron, 57, and her husband fell behind on mortgage payments for their Bennington home, which total about $600 per month, including property taxes, she said. A few months later, the couple learned that their health care premium would increase to $902 per month. They realized they needed to choose between insurance and their home.

"It's pretty hard to live in Vermont in a tent, so we decided we needed the house," Lampron said.

Lampron suffers from colon perforations, she said, and needs 30 inches of the intestine removed — a procedure that is out of the question, given her lack of insurance. She finds herself, in effect, waiting "around until my colon ruptures," she said.

If that happens, she expects a hospital will save her life — but leave her with a five-figure bill that might lead the couple to lose their home anyway.

Lampron — along with fellow members of the Bennington chapter of progressive activist group Rights & Democracy, elected officials, social-service providers and other members of the public — offered her experience with the country's health care system at a town hall held Wednesday night at the Bennington Free Library.

The event was hosted by the Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services' Bennington Free Clinic, which provides free medical care to uninsured adults, and the Vermont Office of the Health Care Advocate, a state-funded project currently handled by Vermont Legal Aid, a nonprofit organization.

Chief Health Care Advocate Mike Fisher said the office's responsibilities, as detailed in state law, include helping to "make sure Vermont consumers' voices are heard — and so that's what gets us here today." The office operates a free hotline that helps Vermonters with health care-related issues. Staff handle about 4,000 cases every year, Fisher said.

Attendees, seated in a circle, shared stories related to the meeting's subject for almost two hours.

G. Richard Dundas, MD, medical director of the Bennington Free Clinic, told a story of one of the clinic's first patients: a 45-year-old, uninsured woman who earned too much money to obtain Medicaid coverage. The woman noticed pain and enlargement in one of her breasts, but she could not afford to see a doctor, "so she put it off, and she watched this thing grow," Dundas said.

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When she arrived at the clinic, the woman was in "great distress," complaining of severe back pain. She was eventually diagnosed with breast cancer that had spread to her back. She died a few years later, despite treatment, Dundas said.

Many attendees, including Dundas, voiced support for a "Medicare for All," single-payer health care system.

"We have a lot of people in the room here who are trying to help people who can't navigate the system," but "the real problem is, we shouldn't need navigators for us," said Dundas, drawing applause. "Simplicity is the key word here."

Toward the end of the meeting, Mia Schultz, vice chairwoman of the town Democratic Party committee and the first African American woman to hold a leadership position with the group, noted that she was one of only two people of color in attendance. "There are people of color in Bennington," she said, but "they don't feel comfortable to come to these discussions."

"We still need to hear their voices," she added.

In an interview after the event, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a possible gubernatorial candidate next year, said that he "came here to listen."

"It's incredibly informative to hear of the different health struggles and interactions that people face — and roadblocks that people face," Zuckerman said.

Open enrollment for Vermonters who need to obtain health insurance for 2020 through Vermont Health Connect, the state's online marketplace, started this month and continues through Dec. 15.

Southwestern Vermont Medical Center helps people obtain insurance through the marketplace, director of planning James Trimarchi said. Interested parties may contact Susan Daugherty by calling 802-440-4083 or emailing Susan.Daugherty@svhealthcare.org.

The Office of the Health Care Advocate's free HelpLine can be reached by calling 1-800-917-7787 or completing the form available at https://vtlawhelp.org/vtlegal_gethelp.

Contact Luke Nathan at lnathan@benningtonbanner.com.


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