Op-Ed: “We need a governor who helps workers”

Originally published in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus on November 12, 2019

By: Rebecca Holcombe

Double-digit increases in health care premiums are bringing extra pain and stress to open-enrollment season for health insurance. Higher prices for less care are causing all the harm you’d expect. A business owner told me how frustrated he is, because the high cost means he has to offer his employees a lesser plan, and he knows the impact this will have on people he cares about and works next to every day.

A school board member expressed frustration that no matter what she and others did to reduce property taxes, the high premiums ate up any savings. A woman told me she wasn’t sure she could still afford the supplemental policy she depended on to help cover her prescriptions. Wage increases are crowded out by higher benefit-package costs. And, municipal premiums in Montpelier are up 25% starting in January.

These problems are real, they are serious, and they are doing real harm to people, budgets and tax bills. And, these stories don’t tell the full story of the damage done to affordability and the Vermont economy by our out-of-control health-care costs — a problem on which Gov. Scott has been notably silent. In fact, his administration delayed work on a required plan for importation of cheaper prescription drugs and left federal reform dollars on the table, forcing state actors to shoulder costs instead.

Vermont is a state in desperate need of the full productivity of its people. I have heard from businesses in every corner of the state about how hard it is to find workers. However, our broken health-care system makes it impossible for many Vermonters to afford to work full time or for better wages. Here is one example of what it looks like.

I spoke recently with a woman whose employer has a lot of part-time employees. Because they are part time, they are not eligible for health benefits. This person is highly educated and could work in a number of fields, but is also coping with a health issue that requires good treatment and thus, good health insurance. Given this, her best health-care option is Medicaid.

Here is the problem: this highly educated person can’t afford to work too much or earn too much because if she does, she loses eligibility for Medicaid. However, because she can’t afford to earn, she also depends on food assistance and fuel assistance from the state to make ends meet. In sum, we have created a situation in which a smart and capable person can’t work or earn more, because she’ll lose her health care. Rationally, she has little choice in our broken system, other than to depend on assistance from the state.

This is not the first time I have heard this story. Too many Vermonters effectively have to limit their work hours and salary in order to retain access to essential health care that they need. This is a huge loss to the Vermont economy, and it increases costs to taxpayers. It permanently harms people’s résumés in ways that limit their long-term earning potential, and it lowers the wages of many others.

Vermonters want to work. And, they want to earn enough to care for themselves and their families. Those are core values that helped build this great state. Unfortunately, our current policy forces some Vermonters to earn less and depend on state benefits, not because they want to, but because doing otherwise could be catastrophic to their health. That is a travesty, and there is no excuse for silence on this issue.

Vermont needs a governor who will push back on pharmaceutical and insurance companies and build our health care workforce. It needs a governor who will make sure less-wealthy Vermonters don’t have to turn down higher-wage jobs or reduce their hours to stay eligible for health care. As governor, I will take on the cost of health care, so that Vermonters are free to work, earn and care for their families.

Rebecca Holcombe is a candidate for governor of Vermont.