by Rob Roper
“It’s a big challenge, but I’m enjoying it quite a bit,” said the former mayor of Rutland about his new gig running Vermonters for Healthcare Freedom. Jeff Wennberg is taking the reigns of the organization founded by Darcie Johnston, who is stepping away to focus on her consulting business. Vermonters for Healthcare Freedom is helping educate Vermonters about the pitfalls of the proposed single payer healthcare system.
Johnston had the skills, the drive and the passion for the issue to put the organization together, raise funds, and get it off the ground. However, Johnston’s career has been as more of a “behind the scenes” person. Wennberg, who is perfectly suited to the role of an out-front spokesperson for a statewide movement, is ready to take the Vermonters for Healthcare Freedom to the next level.
Wennberg was elected mayor of Rutland for six terms. He served as Executive Director of Rutland Solid Waste District, and as Commissioner of Environmental Conservation under Jim Douglas. After leaving that position, he became a consultant, working on energy and environmental issues, helping states understand and implement climate policy.
Wennberg sees as the mission for Vermonters for Healthcare Freedom as, “…trying to get a more dispassionate and, if you will, a more critical look at what the state of Vermont is doing and is poised to do, and to try to get that information out to people.”
Asked what aspect of the healthcare debate surprised him most since assuming his new position, Wennberg replied, “The thing I guess that most surprised me is the disconnect between what the governor is saying about the process that he is going to follow and the tests that he is going to require before Vermont actually makes a formal decision to go ahead with this, and the actions that the Administration is taking.”
Governor Shumlin has repeated a promise that if the single payer plan ultimately does not cost less than the current system, offer higher quality care, create jobs in the state, and it effectively contain costs over time, we will “take our marbles and go home” – or in other words, scrap the program. However, as Wennberg points out, “The actions the Administration is taking is flat out, full speed ahead implementation, and the legislature is supporting that…. They’re spending millions of dollars. They’re hiring staff. They’re reengineering the infrastructure within state government and the infrastructure within the entire healthcare delivery system. They’re reengineering it now, even though we have yet to see even a draft budget.”
Wennberg pointed out further, “We do not know how much this is going to cost. They haven’t even suggested they’re going to try to answer that question until three or four months after the next election. They haven’t told us who’s going to be covered. They haven’t told us how it’s going to be paid for. They haven’t told us what services are to be provided; what benefits will be provided. All this, we’ll tell you late, we’ll tell you later, we’ll tell you later… Well, how can we make a judgment as a state as to whether or not the governor’s criteria have been met if they won’t answer the questions?”
Wennberg would add fifth criteria to the governor’s four: demonstrate that the government actually has the competence to carry out the plan. For decades under both Democrat and Republican administrations, points out Wenberg, “The state of Vermont… could not successfully run a fifty four bed hospital – the Vermont State Hospital. They couldn’t do it. They just couldn’t do it…. They couldn’t make it work…. And now they are poised to take over near total control of a $5.3 billion healthcare industry that affects absolutely every Vermont citizen.” It’s a track record that does (or at least should) give one pause.
“It’s essentially doubling the size of state government with one stroke of the pen. And the idea that we can do that, and over very short period of years, do that effectively and not wreak unintended havoc to the healthcare delivery system in this state is — I’m sorry, I’m not convinced given the background and the history of the State in managing the State Hospital or other related efforts, that they’re capable of doing that, even if the plan itself is good.”
Perhaps Wennberg’s greatest fear is that, despite the governor’s lip service to scrapping the program if it doesn’t pan out or is an outright disaster, we won’t be able to reverse course, and there is no plan B if Green Mountain Care fails.
Vermonters for Healthcare Freedom has been steadily growing its list of followers and supporters through grassroots outreach. They launched a media campaign involving television, radio and the internet, if measured by the reaction of advocates for a single payer system, was quite successful. Wenberg looks to expand on these efforts as the legislature and the governor continue to plow forward.
This Sunday, April 1, Jeff Wennberg will be the guest on the WCAX public affairs program, “You Can Quote Me” at 11:00 AM.The program can be viewed online following the broadcast at: http://www.wcax.com/story/503137/you-can-quote-me