MONTPELIER — In the two years since health care reform became a central focus of Vermont’s political landscape, Wendy Wilton has emerged as arguably the highest-profile critic of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s single-payer plan.
Her controversial fiscal analysis of the publicly funded system envisioned by the Democratic governor has made the Rutland City Republican a poster-woman for single-payer opposition.
And while the debate over health care reform has, electorally at least, been confined largely to gubernatorial politics, Wilton’s formal entry into the race for state treasurer on Monday means the issue could soon dominate a down-ticket campaign.
“We have to look at the possible financial impact of this, because it’s so big, it’s so huge, it’s like the Titanic, and it really is an all-in bet in a big way,” Wilton said in a phone interview Monday. “I’m not opposed to health care reform at all — God knows we need it. But I am concerned that there hasn’t been enough thought about this thing and we’re going into it headlong.”
Wilton referenced her single-payer “model” at the outset of her announcement speech in Rutland on Monday. The model — it has been lambasted by administration officials and single-payer proponents — projects the Shumlin plan will generate a $2 billion deficit in just five years.
“As I have gone around the state discussing a projection model I developed regarding the proposed health care reform, it is clear Vermonters are seeking greater transparency on fiscal matters,” she said in her speech.
The state treasurer lacks the constitutional powers to thwart unilaterally the enactment of single-payer health care. But the holder of the office has long been viewed as the financial conscience of the state. Dire warnings of impending fiscal doom from an anti-single-payer treasurer could blunt the political will that will ultimately be needed to pass the largest public financing system ever undertaken by the Vermont Legislature.
“She’d probably do everything she can in office to sabotage the effort rather than help out the effort,” says John Franco, a Burlington lawyer who formerly served as a paid health care consultant for the Shumlin administration. “You don’t want to have somebody who is vehemently and virulently opposed to a program in that position. It’d be like having a conservative Republican as secretary of the treasury under Barack Obama.”
Wilton insists she has no opinion on the merits of single-payer from a policy perspective.
“I’ve tried very, very hard to think of myself as a neutral questioner on this and say, ‘hey, there’s got to be some due diligence done on this,’” she says. “It is not the treasurer’s job to get into the policy weeds at all. But it is the treasurer’s job to really ensure that anything so big and significant as this is sustainable.”
Public statements by Wilton, however — she is on record stating that “single payer will be a job killer” — seem to betray an ideological opposition to the single-payer concept.
That’s one of the reasons why the prospect of Wilton as treasurer concerns single-payer supporters.
“The problem is this aura of objectivity,” says Franco, a Progressive. “This isn’t about the numbers, because analytically she’s not even in the ballpark. What’s going on here is someone using numbers to try to instill the fear of, oh my God, a big government-run health plan.”
Wilton says her statements about single-payer being a “job killer” are based on the single-payer financing mechanism proposed in a 2010 study by Harvard economist William Hsiao.
Wilton’s financial models use the 14.5-percent payroll tax proposed by Hsiao — 11 percent to be borne by the employer, 3.5 percent by the worker — as the revenue source for single-payer.
Though the Shumlin administration has taken great pains to defer any discussion about financing options until after the 2012 election cycle, Wilton says the payroll tax is the only financial mechanism large enough to fund the system.
“I have friends who run small businesses, and they’ve said that would put them out of business,” Wilton says. “What happens is we’re going to end up reducing our revenue, and then what happens to whole program? It becomes unsustainable.”
It’s statements like that that have won Wilton praise from single-payer opponents like Jeff Wennberg, executive director of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom.
Wennberg said Wilton’s models have supplied advocates with the empirical evidence needed to rebuff the administration’s rosier single-payer projections.
“She’s contributed I think powerfully to asking exactly the right questions on the financial side, and to encouraging folks on both sides quite frankly to better understand the implications of it,” Wennberg said.
Jack Lindley, chairman of the Vermont GOP, said Wilton has been a key figure in the party’s sustained battle against single-payer.
“She’s been very vocal and has real insight into what is about to be foisted upon Vermonters and small business people relative to health care reform, and her knowledge is invaluable to the segment of Vermont that is actually concerned about trying to control costs,” Lindley said. “I have great hope she can be a balancing force to the rule of an arrogant majority in Montpelier.”
Incumbent Treasurer Beth Pearce, a Democrat, says she supports single-payer, and will work with administration officials to craft a financing system to support the governor’s plan.
“I think that health care reform is needed and that the cost-containment side of this is something we need to pay a great deal of attention to,” Pearce says. “I think that single-payer health care is going to do a number of good things to assist us, particularly on the cost-containment side.”
Pearce said solving the state’s health care woes isn’t a core function of the office, which is responsible for the issuance of bonds, the management of day-to-day cash flow and the state’s multi-billion-dollar public pension system.
She said the treasurer will, however, need to evaluate the impact of any potential financing system on the state’s credit rating and cash position.
Commissioner of Financial Management Steve Kimbell, who has helped spearhead the administration’s push for single-payer, says he isn’t worried about a Republican treasurer derailing the reform effort.
“There’s a huge difference between spouting numbers the way Wendy does — creating things out of whole cloth, really — and the scrutiny that would be brought to those numbers if she were treasurer,” Kimbell says. “If she’s treasurer, Wendy’s numbers will get scrubbed a lot more than they do now and prudent managers in the executive branch won’t let the horror story she’s going around telling develop here.”
Wilton says if she’s treasurer, she’ll finally have a broader platform from which the numbers can talk — and hopefully, she says, be heard.
“I am a resource and a check, if you will, for the legislative body and the executive. Can something be done? Is it feasible? Will it work?” she says. “Lawmakers can’t be accountable unless they have the information they need to answer to those questions. And that’s what I can provide.”
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