Wide divide remains in health care reform debate

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(Host) One of the biggest issues facing lawmakers in the coming weeks will be reaching a consensus with the Douglas administration over the funding of a health care reform plan. Right now the two sides are far apart.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) The debate over health care has changed in the past year at the Statehouse. Last year, Governor Jim Douglas vetoed legislation backed by the Democrats because the governor said the plan would inevitably lead to the imposition of a single payer, Canadian-style health care program. Douglas was also unhappy that the plan included a payroll tax for companies that don’t offer health care to their employees.

This year there’s more agreement on the general framework of health care reform. All sides support providing a state subsidy to help uninsured Vermonters pay for private coverage; they disagree on the size of the benefits package.

There’s also strong agreement to make it easier for health care providers to be compensated for wellness programs to help patients with chronic illnesses.

The governor thinks employees who are offered coverage at work should be required to take it. It’s a provision that’s also part of the draft Senate plan. It’s estimated it will cost the state’s business community roughly $45 million a year to comply with this mandate.

The House and Senate plans cost more money than the governor’s because they offer greater benefits. To pay for it, they want to increase the cigarette tax, use the second installment of the national tobacco settlement fund and impose a fee on companies that don’t offer insurance. The governor doesn’t like any of these ideas:

(Douglas) “My message is we can have meaningful health care reform without any of those elements because it’s a plan that I proposed, that I’ve worked with many people inside and outside of government to develop, that accomplishes our goal of providing coverage to everyone. So they’re not necessary.”

(Kinzel) Senate Health and Welfare Chairman Jim Leddy defends his panel’s approach:

(Leddy) “If a significant majority of businesses are paying for health care for their employees, we don’t think it’s unreasonable for those businesses who do not pay for health insurance for their employees to pay a fee to help offset the costs that are being absorbed by other employers and by government. So we think it’s a question of equity and a question of fairness.”

(Kinzel) The Senate plan also calls on Vermont hospitals to continue to provide roughly $40 million in free care every year. The hospitals strongly object to this proposal and they plan to make their views known to the committee later in the week.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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