Vermont's "Healthcare Is a Human Right" Campaign

The Vermont Workers’ Center is leading a multi-stage Healthcare is a Human Right campaign, which has mobilized people across Vermont to demand human rights-based health care reform. By using the human rights principles of universality, equityaccountability, transparency, and participation, the campaign has succeeded in changing what is considered “politically possible” in health care reform. On May 26, 2011, Act 48, an act for a universal and unified health system, was signed into law by Governor Shumlin, marking a significant breakthrough for the human right to health care movement in Vermont and in the United States. Vermont is now the first state in the country on the way to establishing a universal, publicly financed health care system. This breakthrough has inspired Healthcare Is a Human Right campaigns in other states: grassroots groups in Maryland, Maine and Pennsylvania are taking up the lessons learned in Vermont and are working together to create a domino effect of universal health care wins across the country.

In Vermont, the campaign is gearing up for crucial implementation decisions expected in 2015: will the new health care system be financed equitably and will resources follow health needs? The Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign has a financing proposal and ideas for moving from coverage to care ready for this next phase of the universal health care struggle.

On this page we document the human rights based grassroots organizing that has led to this breakthrough, and we inform about the upcoming struggles during the multi-year transition period to the new system. The Vermont Workers' Center is committed to growing Vermont's people's movement to counter the expected onslaught of insurance industry money and big business lobbying over the next few years. NESRI has supported the Healthcare is a Human Right campaign since 2008.

The Legislative Struggle and Breakthrough

After a huge mobilizing effort during the 2011 legislative session, the Health Care Is a Human Right Campaign celebrated the passage of Act 48 (formerly H.202), Vermont's new universal health care law, which creates a path for establishing a publicly financed health care system in Vermont by 2017. Yet the fight will continue to ensure that this path will be followed in a manner compatible with the human rights principles in the law. 

In 2010, after two years of intensive grassroots organizing, the Workers' Center won the Universal Access to Health Care Act (Act No.128, formerly S.88), which was passed and signed in May 2010. The campaign’s signature principles – universality, equity, accountability, transparency, and participation –were enshrined in Act 128, which committed the state of Vermont to design and implement a health care system based on these human rights standards, and to provide health care as a public good. Subsequently, Vermont's new governor, elected in the 2010 midterm elections, promised to make health care a right in Vermont.

On January 5, 2011, Vermonters delivered over 4000 signed Universal Health Care Petitions to the new state legislature, calling on representatives to act on Vermont's new law and implement a health care system based on human rights principles. On Day 1 of the legislative session, hundreds of human rights activists crammed into the statehouse demanding universal health care, and they were joined by the House Speaker and the Senate and House Health Committee chairs, who pledged to support a universal health care plan. The next day, Governor Peter Shumlin confirmed in his inaugural address that he intends to create a single-payer system that treats health care as a right.

On January 19, 2011, Dr. William Hsiao, a Harvard expert hired by the state to develop implementation plans for a universal health care system, released his draft report (the final report is now also available), in which he recommended a public-private single payer system for Vermont. He stated that such a system would provide health insurance to every Vermonter, with all receiving a common benefits package. Payments to doctors and hospitals would be channeled through a single pipe to cut costs and eliminate waste. In Dr. Hsiao's estimates, this system would achieve both universal coverage and cost savings in the order of $1.2 billion by 2019. The report projected that the new system could be up and running by 2015, provided the legislature acts swiftly to pass legislation to this effect. The Workers’ Center used its human rights assessment tool to comment on Dr. Hsiao's report. The detailed human rights assessment of Dr. Hsiao's designs found several shortcomings, particularly with regard to the principles of equity and accountability. Overall, the public single payer model with comprehensive benefits received the highest scores in the assessment.

In February 2011, Governor Shumlin introduced a universal health care bill, H 202/S. 57, in both houses of the Vermont legislature. The bill outlines a path toward a universal, publicly financed health care system, to be established by 2017 at the latest, depending on federal waivers. The Healthcare Is a Human Right campaign prepared a human rights assessment of the bill, and continuously advocated for improvements to the bill based on human rights standards. On March 24, 2011, the House passed H.202, and on April 26 the Senate passed a different version of the bill. While making its way through the Statehouse, the bill was weakened through several harmful amendments, yet the Campaign mobilized Vermonters across the state and succeeded in getting an exclusion of undocumented people struck in the House-Senate Conference Committee. On May 5, the final version of the universal health care bill was passed by the House, following passage in the Senate two days earlier. Vermont is now the first state in the country with a law for a universal, publicly financed health care system.

Using Human Rights Principles for Policy Advocacy

Throughout its campaign, the Worker's Center kept the focus on a principled approach to reform, in marked contrast to both the federal health reform debate and many single–payer advocates. Activists used the five human rights principles as a compass to guide themselves through a maze of policy suggestions. They assessed each policy proposal on the basis of these principles, rather than pushing for a specific technical solution. This enabled them to comment even on complex issues without getting drawn into the fray of compromises and confrontation. A human rights report card and accompanying analysis prepared by activists guided them through the various health care proposals put forward at the beginning of the 2010 legislative session. A People’s Team had a daily lobbying presence on the floor of the Statehouse, prepared a People's Tool Kit to enable everyone to participate, and organized testimony from activists across the state.

Read the 2010 People's Tool Kit.

People's Hearings: Voices of the Vermont Health Care Crisis

The policy breakthrough the Healthcare is a Human Right Campaign achieved was made possible by three years of intensive grassroots organizing. The campaign kicked off with volunteers going into communities and talking with thousands of Vermonters about health care. People from different regions and diverse backgrounds shared their experiences of suffering from a lack of access to care, often caused by financial barriers. Some of their stories are now documented on brief video clips as part of the People's Stories Project. The Campaign then held a series of human rights hearings across the state, putting the health care system on trial. Many people came forward to testify how the market-based system had failed to meet their health care needs.

The voices of over 1,200 Vermonters are captured in a report and short video. "In this report, we present a collection of voices of Vermonters impacted by the healthcare crisis and present data examining our current healthcare system which is failing us," said Dawn Stanger, then-president of the Workers' Center.  "We found that over 95% of Vermonters believe healthcare should be a human right. We are organizing a statewide grassroots network to establish healthcare as a human right and making it a public good for everyone."

 

Grounded in community-based mobilization, the Campaign’s mass organizing efforts ― surveys, postcards and photo petitions, annual May Day rally ― have directly engaged over 11,000 Vermonters (close to two percent of the state’s population), and indirectly reached a far wider segment of the population through grassroots-driven, volunteer-led media strategies. The Workers’ Center also used the human rights framework to forge solidarity among different groups and struggles, including through collaborations with progressive labor unions, faith community groups, immigrants' rights groups, and disability rights organizations.

Vermont's Annual May Day Rally: Healthcare is a Human Right

On May Day each year, the Vermont Workers’ Center organizes a state-wide rally at the Statehouse in Montpelier to show Vermonters' support for realizing the human right to health care in Vermont.

In 2012, the May Day rally brought a range of people's struggles together under the banner of "Put People First." Expanding the focus of the now famous "Healthcare Is a Human Right" rallies, this year's event united the Workers' Center's health care and People's Budget campaigns with allied struggles for migrant justice, disability rights, workers' rights, food and environmental justice, and women's rights. The shared demand for human rights, expressed through the principles of universality, equity, transparency, accountability and participation, created a common language and unifying platform. Around a thousand people marched from City Hall to the Statehouse, where the Workers' Center invited representatives from each group to express their demands for putting people's needs and rights first.

The 2011 May Day rally had a direct political impact: protesters' demands for health care system that is truly universal and includes everyone created the moral and political pressure that led to the striking of a harmful anti-immigrant amendment to H.202, the universal health care bill. 

The 2010 state-wide rally mobilized over a thousand people to “prove that Vermonters want real change." Vermonters from all across the state converged on the Statehouse to demonstrate for recognizing health care as a human right in Vermont and providing it as a public good by implementing a single-payer, universal health care system.  NESRI, the Poverty Initiative and Media Mobilizing Project traveled to Montpelier to assist with the multi-media documentation of the day and hold a media strategy session with the Vermont Workers’ Center media committee.

The 2009 rally was the largest workday rally in recent Vermont history and was endorsed by over 100 organizations, including faith and labor groups, small businesses, and many other national and state-based organizations.

Multimedia documentation of the 2009 rally: Listen to NESRI's podcast that documents the historic 2009 May Day rally. The podcast aired on Philadelphia's Labor Justice Radio (an initiative of the Media Mobilizing Project) May 2009 show.

We've combined this podcast with a slide show of the rally; below is a 10 minute audio slide show with speeches and interviews recorded at the rally.

 

Below is a pre-rally public service announcement from the Vermont Workers' Center: