MONTPELIER — Republican candidate for governor Randy Brock and a team of policy advisers are fine-tuning a free-market alternative to Gov. Peter Shumlin’s single-payer health care proposal.
At the GOP’s convention Saturday, Brock revealed the rough outlines of his conservative take on health care reform. Less government intervention, not more, Brock said, will allow market forces to work their cost-containment magic.
“There is no question that we need to reform our health care system to corral runaway costs … But only a Democrat would think solving those problems requires a government takeover of the whole system,” Brock said. “What government really needs to do is to aggressively recruit lots of new insurance companies to come to Vermont so consumers have more plans to choose from.”
Brock’s speech got a rousing ovation from the GOP faithful. He’ll make his case to a broader swath of the voting public when he unveils a more complete reform plan early next month.
“There will be much more to come,” Brock said this week. “We’re not going to be able produce the Hsiao report, or something of that length and magnitude,” Brock said, referring to the state-funded study on which Shumlin’s single-payer plan is largely predicated. “But it will be clear what the alternative vision is, and what the elements of that are and how we intend to provide a truly credible alternative.”
Brock has turned to a team of advisers — “people from more than 50 miles away with dark suits,” he deadpans — as he looks to transform Shumlin’s signature policy initiative into a political liability. The group includes a number of conservative luminaries, including Tarren Bragden, the controversial figure who helped shepherd an insurance deregulation bill through the Maine Legislature last year.
“One of the things I’ve talked to Randy about, and one of reasons he reached out to me, is there are certain dynamics and challenges with a small state that you really have to consider when it comes to fixing the health care crisis,” Bragden said by phone Wednesday. “Vermont really is at a crossroads of two competing visions: one is that politicians will play doctor and make decisions for patients in every aspect of treatment. The other is a pro-patient strategy that says patients need to have options and choice.”
Republicans credit Bragden, former head of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, with forging the political will needed to pass bill that has lifted some of the constraints on private insurers.
Maine Democrats say the bill has undone a more than decade-long process aimed at bringing insurance costs to within financial grasp of the high-risk populations that need it most.
Bragden, meanwhile, said the legislation has lowered costs across the board by intensifying private-sector competition.
Bragden has since moved to Florida, where he founded the Florida Foundation for Government Accountability, an organization that won attention as a lead advocate for a law that, until it was blocked by a judge last October, forced welfare recipients to undergo drug tests before they could receive welfare benefits.
“In a free-market, patient-centered approach, there are lots of choices and those choices and competition promote higher quality and better health, which is what everybody wants from health insurance,” he said. “Gov. Shumlin on the other hand has a strategy of blowing up the entire system and doing something different than every other state in the country is doing, and that comes with a lot of risks to the citizens of Vermont.”
Deb Richter, founder of Vermont Health Care for All, a leading single-payer advocacy group, said deregulating the insurance industry will dial back protections that, for instance, prevent insurance companies from denying someone coverage based on pre-existing conditions.
“It allows insurance companies to cherry pick in a way that benefits their bottom line. So you might be able to get cheaper insurance as a healthy young person, but if you’re chronically ill, you can’t get an affordable policy,” Richter said. “It’s like a paper umbrella – works just fine, when it isn’t raining.”
Cassandra Gekas, health care advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said the free market had its shot.
“And it’s failed miserably,” said Gekas, who lobbied the Legislature in 2010 for passage of Shumlin’s single-payer proposal. “It’s made billions for industry executives and private investors while the rest of us suffer. Contrary to what Sen. Brock believes, state regulation of the insurance market emerged in response to corporate greed.”
Brock’s health care advisory panel includes some recognizable names fom Vermont, as well: John McClaughry, founder of the Ethan Allen Institute, which has lobbied for lower taxes and less government regulation; Wendy Wilton, the Republican candidate for treasurer who authored a fiscal study panning single-payer; and Dr. Mel Boynton, an orthopedic surgeon at Rutland Regional Medical Center who sits on the advisory council at the Ethan Allen Institute.
Despite a recent poll that pegs Shumlin’s job approval ratings at more than 60 percent, Brock said angst over Shumlin’s health care transcends party lines. Vermonters are eager, he said, for an alternative to what he’s taken to calling “Titanic Care.”
“We need the kind of intense insurance competition that encourages innovation. Let’s allow generous health savings account rules and high deductible policies that save consumers money. Let’s permit lower premiums and premium rebates for healthy lifestyles,” Brock said in his speech. “Let’s reform the labyrinth of mandates that drives up costs. Let’s institute tort reform that protects patients while also protecting doctors who avoid ordering needless tests. And let’s make sure coverage can follow people regardless of where they work. With the money saved by these and many other concrete actions, we can ensure that health insurance is available to everyone and no Vermonter is bankrupted by catastrophic illness. And we can make certain there are only two people making your health care decisions: you and your doctor.”
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