Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin answers questions at a news conference on Nov. 5, 2014, at City Hall Park, in Burlington, Vt.
Andy Duback/AP

The nation’s first single-payer plan collapses in Vt.

Politics in Vermont tend to be a little different than most places. For much of the country, when a Democrat’s health care plan is described as “socialized medicine,” it’s considered an insult. In the Green Mountain State, however, Gov. Peter Shumlin (D), recently re-elected to his third two-year term, made the creation of a single-payer system a key element of his statewide platform.
 
That, however, was four years ago. Yesterday, as Vermont’s Seven Days newspaper reported, the Democratic governor effectively walked away from his ambitious goal.
In a striking reversal, Gov. Peter Shumlin on Wednesday abandoned his chief policy initiative, saying “now is not the right time” to pursue single-payer health care reform.
 
Shumlin dropped the political bombshell with no warning Wednesday afternoon at a crowded Statehouse press conference. He said that new cost estimates presented to him last Friday by his health care team made clear that the plan he envisioned was “just not affordable.”
The governor and his team originally estimated that single-payer would carry a price tag of about $2 billion a year. (In a state where the entire budget is about $2.7 billion, that’s an enormous amount of money.) More recently, however, those estimates were revised to over $3 billion a year by the end of the decade, and Shumlin simply did not see a way to adequately cover the costs.
 
The governor did not go so far as to officially kill the plan altogether – the talk in the state capital was about “hitting the pause button” – but under the circumstances, there’s little doubt that single-payer is finished in Vermont for the foreseeable future.
 
And if it’s dead here, it’s unlikely Americans will see it anywhere for quite a while.
 
I’ve seen some suggestions that the state legislature already approved single-payer back in 2011, but that’s not quite right. Three years ago, the Democratic-led legislature passed a blueprint of sorts, moving Vermont towards a single-payer model, but it was only a preliminary step.  It wasn’t, in other words, like Congress passing the Affordable Care Act – in Vermont, it was more an example of lawmakers agreeing to a plan to create a plan.
 
As for what changed the governor’s mind – as recently as the fall campaign, Shumlin remained committed to his plan – the Seven Days report added:
Shumlin’s deputy director of health care reform, Michael Costa, walked lawmakers, business owners, advocates and reporters through the administration’s proposal – and its shortcomings – with a slideshow presentation. He said that several assumptions made in previous reports turned out to have been incorrect. Cost containment estimates were overly optimistic, he said, while the amount the state expected to receive from the federal government turned out to be $161 million less than anticipated.
It’s probably worth noting that the prevailing political winds didn’t help: the governor barely eked out a narrow Election Day advantage this year, despite running against a clumsy, inexperienced Republican who had almost no money.
 
Shumlin intends to move forward with incremental improvements to the state health care system, many of which will probably draw legislators’ support. But on his grand ambitions, the single-payer plan is no more.
 

Health Care and Vermont

The nation's first single-payer plan collapses in Vt.