Awww. Apparently, I missed a world-class clusterfrack at the Statehouse today. An episode blending high drama and low comedy, the kind of thing that serves as a reminder that Our Leaders Are People, Too. Just like the rest of us, they put on their pants one leg at a time. And just like the rest of us, they occasionally step on a rake and konk their noggin. It was, as one observer told me, “bad planning but good theater.”
The scene was a Friday meeting of the House Health Care Committee. On Tuesday, the panel had somewhat surprisingly approved a health care bill that included the so-called Soda Tax, a penny-per-ounce levy on sugar-sweetened beverages. Today the panel was poised to give final approval.
And then, Democrat George Till, a doctor in real life, was called away to a medical emergency.
The vote was called anyway. And it was a 5-5 tie, with three Republicans joined by Progressive Chris Pearson and Independent Paul Poirier voting “no.” The bill failed for lack of majority support.
A tizzy ensued.
“It’s frustrating,” said Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln and chairman of the House panel. “The committee spent a lot of time and took majority votes on a number of steps along the way and there were a few members of the committee who couldn’t support the bill because of how much it did, and there were a few members of the committee that couldn’t support the bill because they … wish it had done more. … I think right now everything’s dead.”
Before we all go tearing our hair out, a couple of points. Three, actually.
First: Mike Fisher knew damn well that Pearson and Poirier didn’t like the bill as it stood today. They had sought changes — relatively minor changes, at that. Their “no” votes should not have been a surprise. Couldn’t the committee chair count the votes? When Dr. Till was called away, a 5-5 tie was all but certain. Couldn’t he have shelved the vote until Tuesday?
One person who was in the room agreed with my suggestion that Fisher had “screwed the pooch.” Remember that, if Democrats try to blame Poirier or Pearson for “killing” the soda tax or imperiling health care reform.
Second: Fisher’s lament notwithstanding, the truth is, nothing is dead. Any member of the committee can seek reconsideration of the bill on Tuesday. Dr. Till’s vote would break the tie and move the bill onward.
Third: Even if the Health Care Committee fails to pass the soda tax, the health care bill goes to the House Ways and Means Committee, which could put the tax right back in.
So if you pick up your morning Freeploid tomorrow and read the following passage…
The vote creates a new cloud of uncertainty over efforts by the Legislature and Gov. Peter Shumlin to solve what has become one of the key riddles of the current legislative session: how to move to the new health care marketplace, or exchange…
… remember that the reality is far less dramatic than today’s moment of dramedy. Unless Fisher is so mortified that he refuses to allow further consideration.
He’s got until Tuesday to cool off.
The core of the bill concerns the transition from Catamount and VHAP to Vermont Health Connect, the insurance exchange mandated by Obamacare. Pearson and Poirier object that the working poor will see higher premiums and/or out-of-pocket costs under VHC. As Pearson told VTDigger, this is not only a matter of fairness, it’s also crucial to the success of Governor Shumlin’s ultimate goal, a single-payer health care system.
Pearson has repeatedly said that leaving lower income Vermonters with less coverage could jeopardize the state’s ability to implement a universal health care system in 2017, when Vermont would be eligible for a federal waiver to deviate from the Affordable Care Act.
“I’ve said from day one that I want to do more to insulate people shifting from Catamount or VHAP into the exchange,” Pearson said. “We came back with more and more modest proposals. There wasn’t the desire to (provide higher subsidies) even though we included new sources of revenue that would have alleviated pressure on the budget. It seemed really shortsighted to me.”
Affordability issues already keep some eligible Vermonters from enrolling in Catamount and VHAP. If the cost of VHC is even higher, it stands to reason that more people might opt out. And that creates a big problem: If the number of uninsured go up, Vermont will lose out on federal premium assistance funds. That, in turn, would jeopardize the financial stability of the whole system.
In short, Pearson’s “no” vote wasn’t a matter of pique, or a display of bleeding-heart progressivism. It was a very practical vote, aimed at solidifying our single-payer future.
And it didn’t kill a damn thing.