A happy exchange over the health care exchange-- lawmakers shook hands in congratulations Wednesday, as they passed one of the most controversial bills of the session out of conference committee.
"Everyone at this table signed the conference committee report and supports the bill going forward, everyone at this table and a majority of members of the House and Senate support the creation of the exchange," said Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln.
The health care exchange abides by the federal Affordable Care Act and puts in place a marketplace for health insurance. The difference between the federal law and Vermont law-- Vermont will mandate it. So small businesses of 50 or fewer will be required to drop their insurance plans by 2014 and buy into the exchange. By 2016 businesses of 100 or fewer will be added to the exchange and by 2017 Vermont will be all in. That will be called Green Mountain Care.
"What I've heard is there are a great many more unanswered questions than there are answers and that should be cause for concern for everyone," said Jeff Wennberg of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom.
Wennberg is leading the charge against single-payer care which won't be established in Vermont until 2017. He doesn't have a problem with the exchange itself; he just doesn't want it to be mandated.
"The scariest thing perhaps is that the Legislature, by making the exchange mandatory, is once again thumbing their nose at federal law and it's just reckless to behave in this way," Wennberg said.
But more than two-thirds of the Legislature approves of the exchange, which is why the conference committee had few differences to iron out between the Senate version of the bill and the House version of the bill.
"We wanted to make sure it is easy for people like you and me to be able to get insurance. We didn't want to make it any harder. We actually wanted to make it easier at a better price and I think we did that," said Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison County.
The nature of the bill itself changed very little in committee. Lawmakers tightened up language on the Legislature's oversight of the process once session is done. It also pushed for stronger benchmarks for the Legislature to check in as Vermont moves toward Green Mountain Care.
"We have always known that important and very tough decisions will have to be made as we move towards Green Mountain Care and we've always known that we would have to make those decisions and we'd have to do them in an open and transparent way," Fisher said.
Believe it or not, lawmakers say this was the easy part. The move toward Green Mountain Care is sure to foster stronger feelings and spirited debate down the road.
The committee's decision still needs final approval from the House and Senate before heading to the governor's desk to be signed into law.