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Miracle Worker? 

Inside Track

Surprise, surprise! Rep. Topper McFaun’s health-care-reform bill — the one the powers-that-be said was absolutely, positively not coming off the committee-room wall — is going to get two days in the spotlight next week, after all!

H.304, the Vermont Hospital Security Plan, would guarantee hospital coverage for all Vermonters while cutting $60 million in annual spending. Pretty radical stuff, eh?

In what some would call a miraculous reversal of political fortune, H.304 will be on the table before the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare and the House Committee on Health Care on the afternoons of January 29 and January 30. “Expert” witnesses are being scheduled, mostly critics with six-figure salaries, we’re told, but supporters of the bill, too.

Cool.

Support for the reform legislation has been building outside the Statehouse at public meetings held in small towns around the state in recent months. They’ve been hosted by Barre Republican McFaun and the “Joan of Arc” pushing health-care reform in the Green Mountains, Dr. Deb Richter.

Richter is admired even by those who don’t sing from the same health-care hymnal she does. One is Peter Sterling, executive director of the Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security Education Fund. That’s the outfit selling the new stopgap Catamount Health Plan to the state’s working uninsured — http://www.catamounthealth.org.

Catamount is the compromise, Jim Douglas-supported plan that offers to sell health insurance to working Vermonters who lack it. Admittedly, Dr. Richter is not a big fan of Catamount; she predicts it will experience a financial collapse within a couple years. But even Sterling concedes, “Beyond a doubt, Deb Richter has done the most in this state to make health-care reform happen. No one can question her credentials and dedication.” Dr. Deb, he said, “is so steadfast in her resolve that people feed off that energy.”

Dr. Deb “does say Catamount is good for some people,” said Sterling, but he admitted, “It just doesn’t solve the big problem, and we know that.”

Richter, who’s been promoting showings of Michael Moore’s illuminating health-care flick Sicko around the state, says that a single-payer health-care system like the rest of the civilized modern world is where we will end up . . . eventually. It’s just a matter of when, eh? And of how long we can prop up the for-profit health-insurance market and hospital CEOs making $750,000?

The big problem, of course, is that health care in our country costs twice as much as in the rest of the civilized world and isn’t as good. Also, people have to shell out $5000 to $10,000 deductibles as well as co-pays. Working people often go without. One can be “covered” by insurance and still be broke.

But, surprise, surprise. H.304 is coming off the committee room wall.

Why is this happening?

“This is happening this week,” Dr. Deb told yours truly, “because of public pressure. People realize this is actually a very decent idea and a pretty good deal for the people of Vermont.”

Richter, a Montpeculiar resident and Cambridge family practioner, calls it a bill “that would do something for everybody and give them peace of mind while actually costing less.”

The Legislative Joint Fiscal Office, she said, ran some numbers and found that, with all of us in the pool together, Vermonters would have to fork out $60 million a year less than what we’re currently spending on hospital bills. H.304 also drew more than 150 regular folks to rally at the Statehouse and lobby lawmakers. They plan to return on February 7.

Richter told “Inside Track” she is “pleasantly surprised,” but “not shocked” that the legislative health-care committees have reversed course and decided to shine some light on H.304 after all.

“The pent-up desire for something like this is overwhelming,” said Richter. “You can feel it everywhere.”

Even “behind the scenes” said the Cambridge physician, “if you talk to hospital executives who aren’t allowed to be in favor of it, you find out they really are, especially at the smaller hospitals.”

This legislation would provide a global budget for the state’s hospitals while guaranteeing every Vermonter’s hospitalization would be covered, said Dr. Richter.

“This would guarantee the hospital CEOs,” she said, that they could pay for the cost of doing business, could pay their staff. “They would not have to worry about chasing the money,” said Dr. Deb.

Interesting.

Topper’s bill, said Richter, would provide “emergency surgery” to a broken health-care system “and help everybody in the bargain.”

But in order to pay for it, “You’ve got to raise a tax,” said Richter, “and that is politically why it’s a challenge, and why they’ve been trying to avoid it like the plague.”

Four or five taxes have been suggested, she said, including a 5.5 percent payroll tax and a $220 annual fee on working folks.

But look at the upside, noted Dr. Richter. “It’s not an increase in spending [it would be a decrease in hospital spending], and everybody gets the security of hospital coverage. So why wouldn’t we do that?” she asked rhetorically.

You know why.

“People advocating for this are not politicians,” said Dr. Deb. “They’re ordinary Vermonters who are hurting and in need of help, and they need help now. They can’t wait until it’s the right time in the political world. They just can’t.”

At the moment, H.304 is not drawing rave reviews from the hospital and insurance execs with the six-figure salaries. Several will testify against the legislation at the hearings next week.

“It’s going to take a while for them to warm up to it,” Dr. Deb said, but, she predicted, “They’ll be begging for it in a few more years. They will!”

But can Vermont really lead the whole nation on health-care reform? Doesn’t it have to be a national program?

“We’ve done it in other areas,” said Dr. Deb, citing the abolition of slavery and welfare reform as two examples.

“New ideas are done at the state level all the time. This isn’t even a new idea. This is how Medicare started,” Richter noted. “They gave everyone over 65 hospital coverage and, ironically enough, they did it because hospitals were having a hard time paying their bills.”

Interesting.

*********

Going to Pot? — A big week ahead for marijuana in Vermont.

This column will be on the printing press Tuesday evening when the distinguished members of the Burlington City Council will be going to pot. That is, they will be addressing whether they should put an advisory marijuana enforcement question on the March Town Meeting Day ballot.

The item, sponsored by Democrat Ed Adrian, an attorney and former prosecutor, and Progressive Tim Ashe, asks voters if they’d like to decriminalize possession of small amounts of grass in the People’s Republic of Burlington.

And on Wednesday, under Montpeculiar’s Golden Dome, a legislative committee will be looking at the same thing — changing the marijuana law in the entire Green Mountain State.

To this member of the Woodstock Generation, it’s hard to believe that gay couples would receive marriage rights before anyone could legally get stoned on grass. But life has been full of surprises, hasn’t it?

“This is the right time to discuss this issue,” Councilor Adrian told “Inside Track” on Monday. “Frankly,” he said, “the governor has made it easy for a lot of people to discuss this issue by saying he’s willing to discuss it as a Republican.”

Of course, Gov. Scissorhands also said he did not think the Burlington City Council was the place to address the matter.

Douglas said at his presser the other day that he really believes “the appropriate place for that debate is in the General Assembly, not in individual communities or counties in the state, but here in the legislature where the lawmakers ought to decide what the appropriate penalties are.”

GOP Jim said he thought it would be “awkward for a state to have individual municipalities making criminal laws different from district to district.”

The bill in the state senate would decriminalize possession of up to four ounces of marijuana, making it a civil offense punishable by no more than a $1000 fine. It would also increase jail time for cocaine and heroin charges.

Our Republican governor did not mention that 30 years ago, as a state rep from Middlebury, he had voted in favor of a bill that would have decriminalized possession of one ounce or less of marijuana. The worst it would have become was a $100 ticket.

It actually passed the House on St. Patrick’s Day 1978, but died in the Senate. Pot smoking has stayed illegal, but that doesn’t appear to have cut down on the activity, has it?

Councilor Adrian, who currently works at the secretary of state’s office, admits that he has had personal pot experience.

“I smoked pot in high school and college,” Adrian told us, “and so did a lot of other people.” The more people open up and share their personal stories about this, the better, he said. “People evolve over time, and there’s plenty of decent people that smoke pot today. I’ve made a personal choice not to, ’cause I think it would be inconsistent with my duties as a prosecutor and I don’t want to be a hypocrite.”

One of those hoping to testify at the Statehouse this week is Rory Malone, an attorney at the Prisoners’ Rights Office at the Office of Defender General.

If pot smoking were decriminalized in Vermont, said Malone, “a number of nonviolent offenders could be out in the community. They don’t really impose a threat,” he said.

But Malone strongly objects to the proposed trade-off, i.e., lowering the penalty for marijuana while boosting jail time and limits for harder drugs.

“This idea of decriminalizing marijuana in exchange for lowering the amount of cocaine and heroin that can be charged as trafficking seems to me a bad idea,” said Malone. “I don’t like these ideas of trade-offs.”

Malone insisted that if the legislature is going to address the decriminalization of marijuana, “Then they need to consider it as a stand-alone idea and not part of the traditional horse-trading that goes on up there.”

Good luck.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Bill Sorrell, also a member of the Woodstock Generation, insisted the other day, “The thought that our prison beds are full of pot possessors and we don’t have room for those who are into child pornography is not true.”

Gen. Billy said in a recent radio interview that, at the moment, “We’ve got over 2000 Vermonters incarcerated and less than one half of 1 percent were in there for pot possession — 10 offenders.”

That’s still 10 too many, isn’t it?

“For small amounts of pot in this state,” said Attorney General Sorrell, “the reality is, in practice, it’s been decriminalized already, by both the police on the street and the prosecutors.”

But it’s so damn expensive!

Sources say marijuana is currently selling for $200 to $300 per ounce.

Imagine if it were regulated, licensed and taxed, eh?

Like beer and wine?

*********

Media Notes — Welcome back, Gus!

That would be Gus Rosendale, who’s back this month beside Stephanie Gorin on the WPTZ-TV anchor desk. Gus had been a reporter at Ch. 5 for several years before moving up to Pittsburgh in 2005. He’s back in the Champlain Valley now, replacing Thom Hallock, a fixture on the anchor desk for the past decade.

Correction — Two weeks ago we incorrectly criticized current Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin for caving to GOP Gov. Jim Douglas on health-care reform in 2005. Got our Peters mixed up.

We meant Senate President Pro Tem Peter Welch, who’s now serving in the Big House on Capitol Hill.

Apologies to Shummy.

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About The Author

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne

Bio:
Peter Freyne, 1949-2009, wrote the weekly political column "Inside Track," which originated in the Vanguard Press in the mid 1980s; he brought it to Seven Days in 1995. He retired it shortly before his death in January, 2009. We all miss him.

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