In what he described as "both an opportunity and an obligation," Vermont Gov. Pete Shumlin has signed the country's first single-payer law, setting the state on a course to be first with a publicly financed healthcare system.
Shumlin, who campaigned for governor on promises to pursue a single-payer system for the state, took little more than four months since his January inauguration to set the state on that course.
"We gather here today to launch the first single payer system in America, to do in Vermont what has taken too long – to have a healthcare (system) that is the best in the world that treats healthcare as a right and not a privilege, where healthcare follows the individual not the employer," he said at the bill signing, held May 26 in the state's capital of Montpelier.
But the law he signed won't create a single-payer system immediately. Instead, it authorizes the formation of the Green Mountain Care Board, which will first aim to rein in the rising cost of healthcare in the state – a rate that is 12 times faster than the state's economy. The five-member board will be charged with creating a reimbursement system for doctors and hospitals, a benefits package and the method for financing the system.
Shumlin acknowledged that the state faces challenges in reworking the current system, something that may take as long as five years to implement and which is likely to face opposition from private, for-profit health plans as well as large employers in the state.
Battle lines are already being drawn. Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, formed recently to oppose the move to a single-payer system, is planning an aggressive public relations and fundraising campaign.
"Today, the Vermont Legislature turned the reins to our state's entire healthcare system over to the Shumlin administration and the Green Mountain Care Board, a group of five unelected, unaccountable 'experts' appointed by the governor," Darcie Johnston, executive director of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, told the Burlington Free Press.
Groups in favor of the law, including the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, intend to launch their own campaign.
"Already the opposition is spreading doubt and lies about how this law will affect the average Vermonter," VPIRG noted on its website. "Over the course of the summer VPIRG will be hosting dozens of community discussions with local legislators, business leaders and other pillars of the community to answers people's questions and help Vermonters understand this new law."
The state will need as many as eight separate waivers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services before implementing the system – though President Barack Obama indicated in a February speech that his administration would help states get the needed waivers if they're working to set up their own comprehensive healthcare systems.