House debates health care reform bill

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(Host) At this hour, the Vermont House is debating a health care reform bill that aims to extend coverage to 20,000 people.

Critics argued that the bill does not have a sustainable source of funds.

They tried unsuccessfully to derail a proposed cigarette tax that would pay for part of the program.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The backers of the health care bill call it a good first step. They say it will begin to control rising costs by focusing on people with chronic diseases, and by making coverage available to more people who don’t have insurance.

Representative Harry Chen is a Democrat who works as an emergency room physician. He says the bill should save an estimated $550 million dollars over the next 10 years.

(Chen When asthmatic or diabetic patients don’t get their medications or regular checkups and end up in my emergency room, it costs the system much, much more than if they followed their recommended treatment regiments. If a patient doesn’t have insurance and can’t pay, we all bear the cost in higher hospital rates and premiums.

(Dillon) The legislation would be paid for through an increase in the cigarette tax, Medicaid dollars, and funds from a tobacco settlement.

House Republicans argued that the funding sources don’t raise enough money. Representative Patricia O’Donnell is a Republican from Vernon. She reminded lawmakers that the state has been forced to cut Medicaid benefits because it doesn’t have enough money. O’Donnell said it doesn’t make sense to fund health care through a tax on cigarettes.

(O’Donnell) Every time we raise the cigarette tax, there is a percentage of people who quit smoking. That’s great. I support that. But then we raise it. And every time we’ve raised it’s because we need money for a Medicaid program. So do we want people to quit smoking or don’t we want them to quit smoking? I say we need them to smoke, because what are we going to do about Medicaid if they quit smoking? Pretty hypocritical of us.

(Dillon) The House voted mainly along party lines to approve the funding plan, including the new cigarette tax of 60 cents per pack.

The legislation does not provide health care coverage to all the 60,000 uninsured in Vermont. It would cover about 20,000 people initially.

Representative Daryl Pillsbury, an Independent from Brattleboro, says it’s time the Legislature acted on health care.

(Pillsbury) “I’m going to be supporting this bill. I support the committee’s hard work. And I support the compromise that this bill is doing here. ‘Cause that’s what we’re doing here. Let’s not forget we already passed a bill by a majority vote in this House that my constituents, the people I represent in Brattleboro were a lot more happy about that than this right here.”

(Dillon) Governor Douglas vetoed the health care bill last year. The governor doesn’t like this scaled-down House bill either. He’s opposed to the cigarette tax, and wants to use the tobacco settlement funds to pay for a new college scholarship program.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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