By Mal Boright

Despite some differences in their views, Williston’s three members of the Vermont General Assembly are optimistic that the 2005 legislative session will bring some progress toward solving some of the problems in the state’s health care system.

Three separate plans from the House, Senate and Gov. Jim Douglas are currently in various stages of deliberation as the session enters its final weeks. The House has passed a framework for eventual public financing for all Vermonters while the Senate is working on incremental steps at cost cutting and access for the uninsured.

Douglas’ plan, made public late last week, would subsidize care for uninsured Vermonters.

Rep. Jim McCullough, who supports the House plan, believes, “something will come out of the session and go to the Governor’s desk. Everyone is committed to that.”

He sees a scenario in which the House and Senate plans will be taken up by a conference committee of members of both bodies with the result an acceptable bill.

McCullough firmly believes that the legislature needs some kind of progress this year and points to the out-of-control cost inflation in health care.

“Our system is a pieced together process that is not really organized,” he said. “Part of the reason for the spiraling costs is that there is really no system. People are falling between the cracks.”

McCullough added that “universal access to health care will be the answer,” and that the house bill will start the process of reorganization in preparation for a new, more comprehensive program. Funding of that program, probably public, is yet to be worked out.

Opposing the House bill was Rep. Mary Peterson.

“I thought it was too aggressive a plan,” she told the Observer over the weekend. “There are a lot of problems that need to be studied before we have that kind of payer (public funding) system.”

Peterson said she wants more immediate emphasis on “driving down the costs,” through paperwork reductions and other strategies.

She also believes that there will be some action taken by the legislature before it adjourns for the year.

“Really, everybody agrees that we need measures to save costs such as a single form,” she said. “But I don’t see any new tax being implemented this year. I’ll be happy just to make progress on the cost side.”

Peterson, whose husband is an orthodontist, and McCullough have differing experiences with small business people and their reactions to the House bill which, if ever implemented, would relieve business firms of medical insurance costs for employees.

McCullough, a longtime small business owner, says that small business people are making it known in Montpelier that the health care issue needs to be addressed now and there is support for the House plan.

Peterson says that while she has heard about this support, the small business people who have talked with her generally oppose the house bill.

Sen. Ginny Lyons, a member of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, has been in the middle of the action on the Senate side where legislation was finished in her committee Friday and sent to the Finance Committee.

She said the bill as presently constituted includes measures for cost containment and provides insurance packages for those without health insurance.

“The cost containment includes a prescription drug benefit, a hospital budget proposal, better integration of health systems and chronic disease initiatives,” she said.

Lyons admitted that “funding is the hard part.”

The Senate legislation calls for a 3 percent payroll tax on uninsured employees and a 3 percent tax on businesses who do not offer insurance to employees.

While Lyons admits there is still a long way to go to get diverse ideologies and opinions reading from the same book, she believes a movement toward consensus is underway.

“The Chamber of Commerce, the Vermont School Boards Association and many others are all working hard on this,” she said, adding that the Vermont League of Cities and Towns is calling for universal coverage.

Lyons also believes that there will be some legislative accomplishments by the end of the session which is but a few weeks away,

“We will have some long range goals set,” she forecast, “and we will have some initial cost containment pieces in place.”