Heller’s MA Health Policy Forum Convenes Single Payer Players from Vermont

June 23, 2011

Over two hundred Massachusetts health policy leaders from health plans, hospitals, and academia along with legislators and senior government officials gathered at the Omni Parker House on June 20th to analyze the process that has just begun to move Vermont toward a single payer system for health care coverage. As citizens of the first state in the nation to pass universal health care legislation, people in Massachusetts were eager to hear about how their neighbors to the north planned to follow suit, achieving universal health care by stepping towards a single payer system aimed at improving health care quality and controlling health care costs.

Anya Rader Wallack, PhD '07, Special Assistant to VT Governor Peter Shumlin for Health Reform, keynoted the forum by presenting an overview of the situation leading to passage of the initial legislation. "Health spending in Vermont more than tripled between 1992 and 2009," she said. "This clearly isn't working for Vermont families."

To address this issue, the Vermont Legislature turned to William Hsiao, Professor of Economics at the Harvard School of Public Health. After extensive research, Hsiao determined that a single payer health care system could save the state at least $500 million a year. He proposed a solution that involved taking the politics out of health care, decoupling health insurance from employment, and making health insurance more affordable. Vermont incorporated many of Professor Hsiao's ideas into its legislation.

"By 2017 Vermont will implement single payer health care," confirmed Wallack. This implementation will be headed by the Green Mountain Care Board, a five-person board meant to survey and approve designs for the universal health care system.

The goal is a sustainable health care system that covers all Vermonters, but the process will not be a simple one. The forum panelists discussed the challenge of funding a single payer system. The Vermont Legislature has chosen to begin the shift towards single payer care right away, while deferring the funding decision until 2013.

As Vermont continues on the path to single payer health care, many new programs will be added, from a comprehensive electronic database to the Vermont Health Benefit Exchange, a government-run, one-stop shop for insurance that will help Vermonters manage health care in the same way Commonwealth Care does in Massachusetts.

As the forum came to a close, Massachusetts Health Policy Forum Executive Director Michael Doonan, PhD '02, took the podium. Doonan, who also serves as a professor and director of the Master's in Public Policy program at the Heller School, summed up what Vermont's health care reform will mean to the other 49 states with a quote from Louis Brandeis:

"It is one of those happy accidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country."

Indeed, as Vermont moves toward single payer health care, the rest of the country will be watching. If the state is successful in improving quality, controlling cost and covering all Vermonters, it may very well serve as a model for the nation.

The forum was co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Health Policy Forum and the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation.

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