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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Campbell (Sort of) Walks Back Single-Payer Comments; Shumlin Mounts Defense

Posted By on Thu, Mar 27, 2014 at 8:33 PM

click to enlarge Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott
What was John Campbell thinking?

That's been the prevailing sentiment around the Statehouse since Vermont Public Radio quoted the Senate president pro tem Tuesday questioning the political viability — and the cost — of Gov. Peter Shumlin's proposed single-payer health care system.

"From what I see right now about the price tag that's associated with ... the financing for a single-payer system, I have my concerns," Campbell told VPR, adding that it "may not be something that would be politically viable in this legislative body, due to the costs involved."

The Senate prez also indicated that he hoped to have a Plan B ready "if this doesn't work out."

Since the story ran, Campbell has been trying to walk it back. Sort of. 

"What I said in the VPR story and what the administration's position has been, I think, is very consistent," he told Seven Days Wednesday. "And that is that we are going to move forward to get a publicly financed, universal health care package that's going to provide quality health care to all Vermonters."

But no sooner had he expressed support for single-payer than Campbell repeated his concerns about its potential price tag, which competing estimates have pegged at anywhere from $1.6 to $2.2 billion. (Proponents argue that any increases in taxes would be offset by the elimination of health insurance premiums.)

"I think, politically, a very heavy lift at this time would be to ask the legislature to pass a $2.2 billion tax package ... It's a very scary figure," he said, declining to name a figure with which he'd be more comfortable. "I personally believe that $2.2 billion is too much."

As for that Plan B, Campbell came armed with a new metaphor. 

"It's just like when you're building a nice big building, you still build fire escapes in there," he explained. "And I think this is one of those situations where you have a building, and I want to make sure that the fire escapes work."

As for the nature of those fire escapes, Campbell again demurred. Evidently, they have yet to be designed. As has Plan B.

"Probably the worst takeaway from that VPR story was for people to assume that I have a Plan B already boxed up and ready to go," he said. "That's not the case."

Asked Thursday at a Statehouse press conference about Campbell's original comments, the governor declined to address them directly. But he did mount a spirited defense of his desire to create a publicly funded, universal health care system.

"I'm convinced we can get this right. We've gotta get it right," he said. "What I would argue is: Don't quit before we start! Don't quit before we start!"

Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland), who joined Shumlin at the press conference to discuss economic development proposals, jumped to Campbell's defense.

"I just want to say that I think that Sen. Campbell is being unfairly characterized as trying to block reform," he said, arguing that the Senate prez was simply providing appropriate oversight. "I think he's trying to make sure that things are being done and that they're being done in a timely manner. So I think he should actually be applauded. And I'm really disappointed in some of the advocates for reform that have tried to paint him as somebody that's stepping in the way of health care reform, because that's not what he's trying to do."

"The point that Kevin's making is, we're all in this together but we've gotta get it right," Shumlin added.

The governor would not say whether he was concerned that the Democratic Senate leader had expressed reservations about his most coveted legislative goal. But he did reiterate his commitment to the cause.

"The thing that's sometimes lost on us is, this isn't something we're talking about doing. We're doing it! We're doing it! We have a process going on right now in Vermont that isn't happening in any other state in America. Any other state in America," he said. "That's a big deal. So it's not as if this isn't happening. We're at it. We're doing it. And we're going to stay on it until we get it right."

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Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz is Seven Days' political editor. He writes the weekly column, "Fair Game."

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