Universal health care advocates rally in Vermont

By Associated Press

MONTPELIER, VT — Hopeful that Montpelier can do what Washington didn’t, hundreds of people who want single-payer health care gathered in Vermont’s capital Saturday, staging a noisy, sign-waving march and rally.

The medium was the message — busing or driving in from Bennington, Rutland, Brattleboro, Burlington and elsewhere, they sang songs on the steps of City Hall and then walked about a half-mile through downtown to the Statehouse waving signs that read “Help the Needy, Not the Greedy,” “Vermont Can Lead the Way” and “Medicare for All.”

Bennington resident Charlie Murphy, who helped organize a bus trip from Bennington to the state capital, said 10 people from the area made the trip and approximately another 35 people were picked up in Rutland.

‘Something that is solid’

After working with people with disabilities for more than 20 years, Murphy said he has seen people struggle to afford medical attention with the current health care system too long.

“If you get disabled and don’t have a job you don’t have coverage unless you’re very low income,” Murphy said. “We just need to have something that is solid and everyone can depend on.”

After U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke to the crowd, seven people from the Bennington area “Healthcare Is A Human Right” campaign put on a skit loosely based on “Wizard of Oz,” where the tin man, lion and scarecrow needed medical attention to treat their ailments and the wicked witch “represented the greed of the system and insurance companies,” said Murphy, who played the tin man.

“It brought attention to the issue and Senator (Susan) Bartlett said she was inspired by it,” Murphy said.

Earlier, activists camped out on the capitol steps to listen as organizers of the “Healthcare is a Human Right” campaign and Sanders said Vermont could lead the way in establishing a universal health care system under which government agency would administer and make all payments for health care.

“We have Medicare, and it should be Medicare for all,” said Ellen Tenney, 54, of Saxtons River, who was among the marchers. “And that’s basically what single-payer would be. Everybody pays into the system but it’s a reasonable premium and it goes totally to health care.”

Her motivation was more personal than most. Her brother died in December of a heart attack because he couldn’t afford his medications, she said.

Tenney, who owns a Brattleboro bookstore, said she sees people regularly in similar straits.

“Our store is next door to a pharmacy, and I have people coming in to sell us books so they can afford their prescriptions next door at the pharmacy,” she said. “There are times I have to say no because it’s total junk they bring in. But a number of times, people have walked out of there and I think ‘Jesus, what a country, this is America?”’

The state Legislature has passed legislation that could result in a “public option” health insurance rejected by Washington or the Canadian-style single-payer system.

The bills passed by the House and Senate call for designing a single-payer system. Both would require federal approval.

The Senate’s bill focuses on single-payer as the goal, but also calls for two alternative designs. Differences will have to be worked out in negotiations between the chambers. It isn’t clear whether Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, will sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without his signature. His spokesman has said Douglas likes parts of the bill but has “strong concerns” about others.

Sanders, a longtime advocate of universal care, called it a “moral disgrace” that the U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t guarantee health care for all of its people.

“I want you to pass a single-payer health care program in Vermont” he said.

“And when you do that, I will go to the president of the United States and say ‘Mr. President, this is what Vermont has done, let ‘em go forward.’ And I’m going to go to my conservative friends in the Congress and say ‘You believe in states’ rights, well here’s a state that has passed single-payer, let ‘em go forward,”’ he said, eliciting cheers.

The Vermont Workers Centers, which sponsored the event, estimated that about 1,500 people participated, though Montpelier police would give no estimate of the crowd size. The number in the march appeared to be less than 1,000.

Banner staff writer Dawson Raspuzzi contributed to this story.