The governor’s number-one public policy goal is no more.
At a news conference today, Governor Shumlin pulled single payer health care off the table, saying the numbers simply don’t add up. Instead, he promised a continued effort to improve access to, and lower the cost of, health care in Vermont.
“This is the greatest disappointment of my political life,” he said, and that nails it. Single payer was one of the foundations of his initial run for governor in 2010. His promise to push for single payer set him apart in a crowded Democratic field and helped overcome doubts about his liberal bona fides. That promise kept the Progressive Party on the sidelines in 2012 and 2014.
And now, it’s not gonna happen.
Oh, he promised a continued fight for a fairer and more accessible system, starting with the 2015 legislative session. But single payer is out until further notice. When asked, “If not in 2017, when?” he only answered in generalities.
As for the timing of the announcement, only six weeks after the election, Shumlin claimed that his team had just finished working the numbers last Friday and confirmed the bad news on Monday.
The numbers were unacceptably bad. Morgan True of VTDigger had reported that the financing mechanism would be based on an 8% payroll tax and a consumer premium imposed on a sliding scale. But the way the numbers shook out, the actual payroll tax would have to be more like 11.5%, and the premiums would have to be higher than expected. The result could punish the economy and leave many Vermonters with higher health care costs.
He cited several factors that moved single payer out of reach. Federal subsidies were not going to be as generous as hoped. The sluggish economic recovery meant fewer dollars coming into the treasury. That had led to state cuts in Medicaid payments that reduced federal support.
Also, the administration had decided a three-year phase-in for small businesses that don’t currently provide insurance was necessary to cushion the shock of a payroll tax. That phase-in meant substantially lower payroll tax revenue for the first three years.
Shumlin was clearly sensitive to the concerns of the business community. That, and his woodshedding in the November election. He saw single payer as a huge gamble that he was unlikely to win, and now is not the time to stick his neck out.
He also acknowledged that the troubled rollout of Vermont Health Connect cost him credibility on building a new health care system. “We must show we can deliver,” he said. “Vermonters have reason to question us, given the troubles with Vermont Health Connect.”
He emphasized all the hard work that’s been done to create Vermont Health Connect, bend down the cost curve, and lay the groundwork for a better system. And he promised a continued, all-out effort to improve the system. But single payer was his signature deal, and now he’s had to forego it.
Even if the delay is relatively brief — say, two years — single payer is almost certainly unattainable during his tenure in office. The failure of single payer will be a big part of his legacy, and will significantly hamstring his ability to win back liberal and Progressive voters who’ve been skeptical of him.
Fair or not, today’s announcement confirms that skepticism. Let’s accept that the numbers are honest and the timing was just the way things worked out. Even so, the optics are bad.
There are many liberals who never believed Shumlin was serious about single payer. They will see their cynicism as confirmed.
This retreat will also lend great comfort to the foes of health care reform. A determined Democratic governor, with all the resources he could want, spent three years researching single payer, only to conclude that it wouldn’t work. The revised cost estimate for single payer — $2.6 billion a year — is almost exactly what Wendy Wilton, then-Republican candidate for Treasurer, estimated two years ago.
And the abandonment of single payer strips the governor of his signature issue. Aside from Tropical Storm Irene, his administration has been marked by incremental gains on a number of issues and blocking tax hikes. There haven’t been any high-profile accomplishments — which is why one of Shumlin’s re-election ads focused on GMO labeling, an issue he didn’t support until the last minute. And why a recurring theme in other ads was Irene recovery, something that happened in his first term.
Now we can now look forward to more incremental gains and belt-tightening. His downsized proposals for the 2015 legislature on health care were purely incremental in nature. None will generate headlines or fuel a grassroots movement.
The governor’s gonna have to pull a rabbit out of a hat somewhere to restart his political career. And his biggest hat is now empty.