Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin on Thursday signed into law a bill establishing a single-payer health care plan for the state, making Vermont the first state to do so.
Shumlin lauded the legislation as an "economic and fiscal imperative" -- as well as a moral one.
"This law recognizes an economic and fiscal imperative - that we must control the growth in health care costs that are putting families at economic risk and making it harder for small employers to do business," he said in a Thursday statement. "We have a moral imperative to fix this problem, with 47,000 Vermonters uninsured and another 150,000 underinsured and worried about how to afford keeping their families healthy."
At least 150 people gathered on the steps of the Montpelier statehouse to view and celebrate the signing of the bill.
Vermont lawmakers passed the legislation in March by a 92-49 margin. At the time of its passage, Shumlin lauded the legislature for becoming "the first state in the country to make the first substantive step to deliver a health care system where health care will be a right and not a privilege."
The legislation, when fully enacted, will guarantee every Vermont resident the right to enroll in a state-sponsored insurance plan, Green Mountain Care.
The law is set to become operational in 2014. In the meantime, the legislation establishes a five-member board that will develop the health care system and ready it for implementation. The board will also be charged with figuring out how to pay for the plan, and must submit an outline for doing so to the legislature for approval by Jan. 15, 2013.
"I realize that people have legitimate questions about how a single payer will be financed and operated, and we will answer those questions before the legislature takes the next step," Shumlin said on Thursday. "We'll be getting input from all Vermonters moving forward, which is essential to the success of this effort... But input from providers, businesses and health care consumers will be especially important to assuring that our reforms are good for our health care system and good for our economy."
In order to implement the new law, Vermont will need to secure a waiver from the Affordable Care Act, the federal health care overhaul Congress passed in March of 2010. Under that law, states are not permitted to launch alternative plans until 2017. However, in February, President Obama expressed his support for the idea of moving that date up to 2014.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Mr. Obama said he was open to the idea of a single-payer health care plan. But that option was fiercly opposed by Republicans and some Democrats in the contentious debate over last year's health care overhaul, and the idea was ultimately abandoned -- to the disappointment of liberals.
According to Bloomberg News, a recent governmental study in Vermont estimated that nearly 50,000 Vermont residents lack health insurance entirely, while 150,000 have insufficient care.