Tropical Storm Irene made headlines when it tore apart communities and families across Vermont. “Vermont Strong” became a rallying cry for how private citizens, businesses and state government came together to re-build and reinvigorate places that were nearly destroyed.
Now another storm is threatening to destabilize and displace thousands of Vermonters, albeit one that does not make headlines in quite the same way. But its impact is just as devastating to every town and city.
What is this current storm? The debilitating effect of eight straight years of budget cuts to state programs that help keep Vermonters healthy, with food to eat and a roof over their head.
For most of us, a sudden expense like a car repair or a doctor’s bill is a costly nuisance. But for thousands of Vermont’s working families who are just barely getting by, an unexpected bill can lead to homelessness, hunger, or a lifetime of poor health. That’s why Vermont invests in programs to help working Vermonters, and those who want to work, to get through a rough patch and avoid deep poverty.
Gov. Peter Shumlin articulates the right priorities to continue this tradition, but his funding mechanisms are deeply flawed. For example, his proposed budget rolls back years of progress on affordable health care by asking upwards of 30,000 low- and middle-income Vermonters to start paying thousands of dollars more a year in premiums, deductibles or both.
Why does this matter?
First of all, these people are our friends, family members and neighbors. Ask yourself — do you know someone who enrolled in Catamount or VHAP after they lost their job, graduated from college or just couldn’t afford their employer’s insurance any more? I’m willing to bet many Vermonters know these people and know they don’t have piles of money in a savings account somewhere waiting to pay Blue Cross Blue Shield or MVP several thousand dollars in deductibles and premiums.
And when access to affordable health care is denied, people either go uninsured or stay insured but can’t afford the charges that come with actually having to see a doctor. In fact, the state’s 2012 survey found more than 94,000 Vermonters said someone in their family was contacted by a collection agency about owing money for unpaid medical bills.
Secondly, these increased health care costs for low-income Vermonters aren’t happening in isolation. Governor Shumlin also proposes drastic cuts to other successful anti-poverty programs such as the earned-income tax credit (EITC) and Reach Up.
EITC helps 45,000 low-income working Vermonters keep roofs over their heads and food on the table — it’s a “year-end bonus” for low-income Vermonters to reward hard work.
The Reach Up program is vital for its 6,400 families working low-wage jobs — mostly single moms with kids who are surviving on $13,000 a year or less. The monthly benefit for a family of three is only $640 per month.
It is possible to find the revenue to adequately fund these programs, it’s simply a question of priorities. The Legislature has already studied numerous tax loopholes that could easily be closed and is currently debating a tax on sugary beverages.
What makes more sense — asking people to pay 12 cents more for a can of soda or asking low-wage workers to pay thousands of dollars more for their health care?
Taken together, the combination of proposed cuts amounts to a massive “tax increase” on those least able to afford it. I believe most Vermonters would like to join with Gov. Shumlin and every member of our Legislature to keep Vermont strong. Let’s find a fair way to raise the revenue necessary to stop the harsh budget cuts to health care, Reach Up and other programs vital to keep struggling Vermont families from teetering over the edge of self-sufficiency and into poverty.
Peter Sterling is director of the Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security, a nonprofit organization that works to educate Vermonters about and assist them in enrolling in Vermont’s public health care programs: Catamount Health, VHAP and Dr. Dynasaur.MORE IN Perspective
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