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Health-care protestors stage sit-in during inauguration

Legislators worry for the Statehouse's openness

Jan. 8 began as a day of celebration as Vermont got ready to inaugurate its governor. The day ended with a sit-in, arrests, disgruntled legislators, and questions of Vermonters’ civility toward Vermonters.

The morning of the inauguration, the Statehouse buzzed with activity. As neither of the top vote-getters had won 50 percent of the popular vote in the November election, the day started with the joint assembly voting in incumbent Peter Shumlin to a third term.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, gave an interview to The Commons outside the doors to the House as people exited the chamber rushing to shake hands with Shumlin and runner-up Scott Milne.

Spoon Agave, a Brattleboro resident and member of the Health Care is a Human Right Campaign, tucked a yellow piece of paper into this reporter’s purse.

“This is our statement,” he said.

The paper was an open letter to Shumlin and the Vermont Legislature in support of universal, publicly financed health care. Fifty-three local and national organizations signed the letter.

“Now is not the time to give up or give in,” the signatories wrote in response to Shumlin’s Dec. 17, 2014, announcement that “now was not the time” for single-payer in Vermont. “One decision shall not determine the fate of a right fought for by many.”

“We urge the governor and the Legislature to redouble their efforts to develop and agree on a public financing plan that advances equity and realizes Vermonters’ right to healthcare, respecting the will of the people as expressed in Act 48,” the letter continued. “Nationally, we vow to redouble our efforts to win healthcare justice in Vermont and throughout the United States.”

Jan. 8, was also Annual Homelessness Awareness Day. Members of organizations working to end homelessness provided information to legislators on their way to and from the cafeteria.

Also filing into the cafeteria were people in red shirts representing the Health Care is a Human Right Campaign or sporting yellow stickers reading “The Time Is Now.”

At approximately 1 p.m., Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, took his seat in the House chamber. He chatted with fellow lawmakers. A group of people gathered inside the door to the House caught the lawmakers’ attention.

The group stood silently, right hands raised in fists. After a moment of silence, the group started to chant and sing “strange things are happening.” Other people seated around the back edge of the House and in the foyer outside joined as a chorus.

After approximately 20 minutes, the patience of some of the representatives seated near Hebert wore thin. The representatives asked each other when the group would be quiet. One lawmaker called the group disrespectful. A few of the other nearby lawmakers offered disrespectful comments of their own.

It was only the beginning.

Protest and freedom of expression are vital to a healthy, open democracy. Government, debate, and lawmakers are also vital to organizing the programs, laws, and infrastructure of a healthy and open democracy.

Unfortunately, Jan. 8 was a day where the communication and cooperation between these two parts of Vermont’s democracy crumbled.

Throughout the inauguration, members of Health Care is a Human Right, a campaign of the Vermont Workers’ Center, sang, chanted, and unfurled banners.

A broken promise

As recently as early December 2014, Vermont was poised to become the first state to enact a single-payer form of health care coverage.

Accolades shifted to the back burner later that month when Shumlin announced that financing a single-payer health care system was too expensive, at least for now.

This news gutted the hopes of many health care advocates who have worked — some for decades — toward renovating Vermont’s health care system.

The Health Care is a Human Right Campaign and Vermont Workers’ Center — politically savvy and traditionally effective at ushering in change — started planning the Jan. 8 demonstration shortly after Shumlin took single-payer off the table.

As part of their planning, the organizations held a workshop Jan. 3 on direct action training at The Root Social Justice Center.

A sense of the state’s broken promise underscored the actions of the more than 200 protestors who voiced their frustration and exercised their First Amendment rights during the inauguration.

Among the singing of “America the Beautiful,” the first of three banner drops, and the governor’s swearing in, Skyler Wind of Brattleboro pleaded from where she sat on the left side of the House for the Legislature to support Act 48.

Some protestors chanted over the benediction by the Rev. Robert Potter, from Peacham, despite Potter’s attempts to acknowledge their frustration.

A second group of protestors entered the well of the House and blocked the entryway. They demanded that the House hold public hearings on healthcare financing by Jan. 29. Until this demand was met, they said, people would remain sitting on floor of the House.

After delivering his inaugural address, Shumlin exited through the rear of the House instead of picking his way through the protestors.

After 6 p.m., parts of the Statehouse stood empty and quiet.

More than 30 protestors remained in the well of the House, continuing the sit-in they had started during the inauguration. Members of law enforcement sat quietly in the back seats of the House.

Dressed in bright blue scrubs, Visiting Wellness Nurse Jessica Morrison sat in the circle of protestors.

Morrison said she witnesses patients suffering under the current health care system.

For example, Morrison said, she serves elderly patients who can’t afford their pain medication. One patient, unable to afford both the maintenance and rescue inhalers needed to treat breathing issues, struggles to get by on one inhaler each month.

“It’s terrible for a nurse” to see, Morrison said.

The system doesn’t make sense, she continued. It costs more to treat people in hospital with big problems rather than treat people with preventive measures.

When asked why she decided to participate in the sit-in, Morrison said part of a nurse’s role is to advocate for her patients.

“Advocating within the system only goes so far,” she said.

Morrison was later arrested and charged with unlawful trespass.

When asked if they were prepared to stay the night and if they had sleeping bags, community organizer, professional advocate, and Brattleboro resident Shela Linton smiled.

“We’re true Vermonters; we’re buffing it out,” she said.

President of the Vermont Workers’ Center Board Ellen Schwartz said that a number of protestors had agreed to stay the night.

The group’s demands were reasonable, Schwartz said.

When asked why demonstrate now, Schwartz said that after all the effort, studies, and legislation, it was important to make it clear that now is the time to keep moving forward with health care financing plans.

Schwartz said that Shumlin, acting alone to take single-payer off the table, had not followed the democratic process. She added it’s important that the Legislature hold public hearings so that health care financing can be openly and fully vetted.

In the VWC’s opinion, parts of the administration’s report on a financing structure — such as a flat payroll tax — were not equitable, Schwartz said, explaining that the payroll tax should be progressive.

According to a press release from the state police, law enforcement arrested 29 of the protestors for unlawful trespass after the Statehouse officially closed at 8 p.m. Ten of the 29 were also charged with resisting arrest.

Schwartz, Philip Strickland, and Skyler Wind were three Windham County residents arrested for unlawful trespass.

Linton was charged with unlawful trespass and resisting arrest. In videos of Linton’s arrest, state troopers have Linton’s arms behind her back. They ask her to stand up. She shakes her head. They pull on her arms and she shrieks in pain yet does not stand up. Fellow protestors tell the police not to hurt her.

Neglected homework

The protest came as a slight to some lawmakers who have worked — some for decades — toward renovating Vermont’s health care system.

Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, said the protest left her with a sense of being shut out from her constituents and a lack of dialogue. Burke said she had wanted to speak with constituents in the well of the House, but the group’s aggressive chanting prevented conversation.

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, ran for the House 16 years ago because, she said, she wanted to reform health care and create a more equitable and affordable system.

Seated near where some protestors held banners, Partridge held up her own handwritten note that read, “You are not helping this cause (my cause too).”

Partridge added that she felt disappointed by the governor’s announcement regarding single-payer.

“Let’s not be discouraged,” she said, adding that she would continue to use “proactive patience” to move health care reform forward as best she could.

Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, told Seven Days that in demanding public hearings, the protestors had neglected to do their homework.

Ayer, who chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said that the committee has scheduled hearings on single-payer financing.

Hebert said that he’s on record “as not being a Shumlin fan.” Yet, he called the protest “disrespectful to the office and this institution.”

“The governor does deserve more respect than that,” he added.

In a later phone interview, House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, said of the protestors, “I appreciate their frustration and celebrate their exercising their First Amendment rights.”

Yet, he added, the protest and sit-in did not represent an effective strategy for quickly scheduling public hearings.

The House was only just “getting its sea legs,” he said. Scheduling public hearings for Jan. 29 is too short a turnaround.

Smith said he had expected and still expects conversations in the House to take up health care financing, though he suggested new legislation is unlikely this session.

Discussions and review of a health care financing report the administration released the end of December 2014 would likely start within the the Ways and Means and Health Care committees, he said.

Discussions will include public participation.

Smith said he had the sense that between the Legislature and protestors “our goals are still shared and remain the same” — to ensure all Vermonters have universal and affordable health care.

While he said he understood the protestors’ frustrations, he added that the goal of universal and affordable health care can still be met. Rather than fixate on single-payer, he said, it’s best to fixate on achieving affordable and accessible health care.

“We need to focus on where we [want to] go, not how we get there,” he said.

Many lawmakers expressed concern that the Jan. 8 protest and sit-in might damage the traditional, unique, and highly-prized openness at the Statehouse.

The lawmakers said that at times some of the protestors crossed the line between offering vigorous expression and creating threatening behavior. They hoped the Jan. 8 action would not threaten the future openness and the public’s freedom of movement within “the people’s house.”

Smith said he has never witnessed such a high level of disruption and corresponding security response at the Statehouse.

When asked if he worried that the protest could result in decreased public access, Smith responded, “It’s a real concern to me.”

“One thing I love about our Statehouse is its accessibility and how open it is,” he said.

He said he would do all he could to keep a balance of openness and security in the Statehouse.

What do you think? Leave us a comment

Editor’s note: Our terms of service require you to use your real names. We will remove anonymous or pseudonymous comments that come to our attention. We rely on our readers’ personal integrity to stand behind what they say; please do not write anything to someone that you wouldn’t say to his or her face without your needing to wear a ski mask while saying it. Thanks for doing your part to make your responses forceful, thoughtful, provocative, and civil. We also consider your comments for the letters column in the print newspaper.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #288 (Wednesday, January 14, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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