Will Vermont’s Babies Have a Better Chance?

By Donna Smith –

As Peter Shumlin was officially sworn in as governor of Vermont, there was and is great hope that at least in one state we may see passage and implementation of a truly universal, single-payer healthcare system.

From Shumlin’s January 6, 2011, inaugural address:

“The rising cost of healthcare for Vermont’s middle class and small businesses provides an equally daunting threat to economic prosperity. Just ten years ago our little state was spending $2.5 billion a year to stay healthy. Today we spend over $5 billion. That increase represents an enormous hidden tax on families and small businesses across our state. If left untethered, the rising cost of health insurance will cripple us.

“That’s why we must create a single-payer healthcare system that provides universal, affordable health insurance for all Vermonters that brings these skyrocketing costs under control. Let Vermont be the first state in the nation to treat healthcare as a right and not a privilege; removing the burden of coverage from our business community and using technology and outcomes-based medicine to contain costs. By doing so, we will save money and improve the quality of our care.”

Amazing words in so many ways. Amazing that we are finally hearing them from one of our nation’s governors, and perhaps equally amazing that the American people have waited so long for the human right of healthcare to be granted in even one small state.

But I have hope tonight for Vermonters. Maybe especially for baby Vermonters.

In February 2006, a young reporter working for the newspaper I edited in South Dakota was pregnant and only weeks away from delivery of her first child. I was struggling with the aftermath of my husband’s third open heart surgery. On a terribly snowy night, I called that reporter to travel the mile or so to a city commission meeting so I could stay at home with my post-surgical husband.

She never complained. But the snow was so heavy that her car got stuck as she pulled out of her driveway. She was so determined to do her job, so determined not to let me down and so determined not to risk losing her insurance that she got out and pushed her car several times in the effort to dislodge it. She was not successful. Another motorist did help – it was South Dakota, after all. She covered the meeting.

But within hours, she was in labor. She emailed me. I knew it was too early for labor. I felt terribly guilty. Though others assured me it had nothing to do with it, I always believed the very serious health issues my reporter’s baby faced in the days, weeks and years ahead were at least in part because her mom pushed a car during her final hours in utero. Still, no one ever complained.

Until I saw a message from her this week on the web. On a social networking site, she wrote, “We are still paying for our daughter’s birth and NICU stay. Add my husband’s carpal tunnel surgery (which we just recently killed ourselves to pay off), our daughter’s dental surgery, her Mayo Clinic visits, recent X-rays on the infection in her thumb, and regular checkups and doctor visits (most of which occur successively until someone finally figures out what’s wrong), and we’re drowning in medical bills. :(”

It is now 2011. Five years later, this family is still paying those bills with no end in sight.

She went on to say she had hoped to think about having another baby some day, but because most doctors now require prenatal care not covered by insurance to be paid up front and she has collectors hounding her for payment of the old medical bills, she cannot even think about another baby. It breaks her heart.

My reporter and her husband are wonderful parents. They both work. In fact, she works two jobs, sometimes more. She laments the fact that she cleans resort rooms for one of her jobs, and that sometimes it is troubling to clean rooms for wealthy folks who have never known what it is like to be sued for a medical bill while doing your best to pay it.

My reporter does not share my political leanings. She is a devout Christian. She tries to live her faith. All she hopes for, all she prays for is time to spend with her child and her husband. She has a great free streak that makes her a superb reporter during the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally – especially since she rides her own bike there every year. She is a neat young woman. I would be so glad for her if she could feel comfortable about having another child. And that child would be a lucky baby.

But unless my friend uproots – also not likely – and moves her family to someplace like Vermont or another country where healthcare is a human right, she’s locked into a life of struggle and need by those who only value profit and greed.

So, Governor Shumlin, I wish you so much good fortune in pursuing transformational reform in Vermont. One of the main reasons I am so anxious for you to succeed is so that a young, pregnant reporter somewhere in Vermont can tell her editor “no, I cannot go out tonight” when a call comes in a snowstorm, and that young reporter will still know that she’ll have healthcare even if staying safe and warm means she cannot keep up her duties as a reporter. I’d also hope that Vermont’s babies would be given a better chance to live healthier, happier and calmer times as they became toddlers and children lovingly raised by parents not shackled by medical debt.

If we’d ever really think about the kids and the families, we’d know Governor Shumlin is right when he says, “I call upon Vermonters to join together with the common purpose of our state once again leading where others dare not go; universal, affordable, quality healthcare that follows the individual and is not tied to employment.”

Donna Smith is a community organizer for National Nurses United (the new national arm of the California Nurses Association) and National Co-Chair for the Progressive Democrats of America Healthcare Not Warfare campaign.