'We Won't Back Down': Vermont Demands Universal Health Care

The demonstration is a response to the mid-December announcement by Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin that he seeks to unilaterally abandon the universal health care plan, passed into law in 2011 under Act 48 and named Green Mountain Care, even though the governor used the groundbreaking legislation to bolster his election.

Timed to coincide with Shumlin's re-inauguration, Thursday's sit-in—still ongoing at the time of publication—was staged by approximately 30 people, with "many supporters" rallying nearby, Keith Brunner of the Vermont Workers' Center, the organization that coordinates the state-wide "Health Care Is A Human Right" campaign, told Common Dreams over the phone.

"I am here because it is a human right to have health care," Skyler Wind, a member volunteer of the Vermont Workers' Center, told Common Dreams over the phone from the protest. "We all deserve to be treated the same way."

Wind explained she is a single mom living with disability, with a disabled child, in extreme poverty. "Too many poor people like myself, we're the ones whose teeth are falling out, whose cancers are discovered too late," she said. "Those like me, who are so-called 'welfare queens,' can't afford co-pays and have to mess around with medication. Why can't my son—why can't I—get care when we need it?"

Immediately preceding the occupation, nearly 200 protesters had filled the halls of the statehouse, singing, "We have come too far, we won't back down. We'll flood these halls with justice, the time is Now!"

Protesters flooded the Vermont statehouse on Thursday. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Leavitt)

"Respect Our Universal Health Care Law"

Act 48, which is requires the full implementation of universal, publicly-funded health care in Vermont by 2017, has already suffered a series of delays since it was passed in 2011. The state legislature was set to decide on a financing plan for the bill in 2015, but in mid-December, Shumlin announced he would no longer move forward on the law, citing economic reasons. "In my judgment, now is not the right time to ask our Legislature to take the step of passing a financial plan for Green Mountain Care," he said.

But it took Vermonters years to build a state-wide movement strong enough to pass Green Mountain Care, and grassroots organizations vow that they refuse to "acquiesce to this undemocratic decision," and in fact, will make their voices louder. The past few weeks have seen organizing drives, protest letters, and even a symbolic mass burning of medical bills in front of the Vermont statehouse to illustrate exactly what's at stake in a state where poverty is on the rise and incomes are falling.

"The health care crisis and economic crisis that so many poor and working class people in Vermont are facing hasn't changed," said Brunner. "The governor, for his own reasons, made the decision to throw in the towel. It was a political decision he framed as an economic decision. He is unwilling to have big businesses and wealthy individuals pay their fair share for health care."

An open letter delivered to state lawmakers earlier Thursday reads, "The Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign asks all of our legislators to respect Act 48, our universal health care law, to review the governor’s report on Green Mountain Care (GMC) financing, and to develop plans for moving forward with equitable, public financing. This process must happen in a transparent and participatory way, unlike the governor’s discussions behind closed doors."

State-Wide Fight With Nation-Wide Relevence

Nationwide, eyes are on the Vermont fight, which has inspired similar organizing drives, from Maryland to Maine, to build popular movements, anchored in human rights principles, to win publicly-funded, single-payer health care for all people, regardless of income or documented status. A report released last summer by the Commonwealth Fund found that the U.S. health care system is the most costly in the world yet provides the worst care of 11 industrialized nations, adding fuel to charges that the for-profit U.S. health system is failing.

More than 50 organizations from across the country, including Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and Jobs With Justice, signed an open letter which was released Thursday and declares, "Governor Shumlin’s announcement is a blow not only for the determined people of Vermont but also for those who looked with hope and renewed energy at the successful effort to advance publicly financed, single-payer healthcare and to create a more just society."

"Now is not the time to give up or give in," the letter continues. "The people of Vermont can and will have the final say in how to establish and pay for a healthcare system that will serve all of their needs, rather than the profits of a few."

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