• Jobs, health care take center stage at debate
    Vermont Press Bureau | September 27,2012
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    Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo

    Gubernatorial candidates Sen. Randy Brock, left, and incumbent Gov. Peter Shumlin, third from left, debate live on the Mark Johnson radio program at the Red Hen Cafe and Bakery in Middlesex on Wednesday morning.
    Both major party gubernatorial candidates say their business backgrounds have informed their views of government. But Gov. Peter Shumlin and Republican challenger Randy Brock offered widely divergent opinions Wednesday on the role of the private sector in lowering health care costs.

    In a debate that pitted the benefits of free-market competition against the merits of heightened government regulation, Shumlin and Brock each took aim at the other’s proposal to control rising insurance premiums.

    “Fundamentally this is where we disagree: You think that the free market works in health care,” Shumlin said to Brock during an hourlong debate broadcast on radio station WDEV. “I say if the free market worked in health care, then we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.”

    Using the analogy of flat-screen televisions, Brock has previously cited the ever-shrinking cost of high-end products as a template for health care reform. By luring more private insurers into Vermont and unburdening them from many regulations, Brock says, residents will enjoy immediate premium reductions at no cost to taxpayers.

    “I’m not advocating that we have unrestricted insurance company competition without regulation,” Brock said Wednesday. “But we have ample examples where in the absence of heavy-handed regulation of the type that we have here in Vermont, that health care prices and costs do (go down).”

    Shumlin said that unlike with TVs, consumers don’t always choose when, where or on what terms they’ll decide to purchase health care services.

    “What you fundamentally misunderstand in my view, Randy, is that health care is not shopping for a television,” Shumlin said. “You have a heart attack … your first thought is not, ‘Where can I go to get the most cost-effective health care?”

    The issue of health care has figured prominently this fall as Brock warns voters against the “reckless” pursuit of single-payer health care. Trading the existing framework for a publicly financed version for which Shumlin has yet to propose a funding mechanism, Brock said Wednesday, could inflict irreparable harm to a system that he says has served Vermonters well.

    “We still don’t know how much (single-payer) will cost, we don’t know who will pay for it, we don’t know what will be covered, we don’t know who will be covered,” Brock said.

    Rather than upend the system, Brock said he aims to “focus on the discrete, individual drivers of health care costs, each and every one of them, and say, ‘How can we deal with them?’”

    With health care costs on pace to double by 2020, Shumlin said, Vermont can no longer afford to “nibble around the edges as others have tried to do.”

    Shumlin said Brock is doing his best to incite fear of the unknown.

    “You try to spread fear,” Shumlin said. “I know that’s your job in this campaign.”

    Shumlin, however, said Vermonters should be more worried about spending trajectories under the system they do know.

    “Sure (single-payer) is ambitious, sure it’s tough, sure it’s going to take imagination and hard work,” Shumlin said. “But if we get this right, which I believe we will, Vermont wins on the jobs front.”

    Shumlin and Brock traded rhetoric on other economic issues Wednesday, including the relative friendliness of Vermont’s business climate.

    A fact check by VTDigger.org and Seven Days disputes Shumlin’s job-creation numbers, saying the number is closer to 4,700 than the 7,500 claimed by the first-term incumbent. But Shumlin on Wednesday said the fact that Vermont enjoys the fifth-lowest unemployment rate in the nation speaks for itself. And he also touted new Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers showing that Vermont was the lone state to see per-capita income gains in the past year.

    “We’re on the right track,” Shumlin said.

    Brock said rosy statistics obscure a more gloomy reality. The exodus of Vermont’s youth to states with more professional opportunities, Brock said, has shrunk the labor force and artificially lowered the jobless rate. That same brain drain, Brock said, also has tilted wage data in a way that creates the illusion of salary increases.

    Shumlin said Vermont can’t afford to have a governor who’s going to bad-mouth the state’s business climate.

    “Sometimes I think you’re not running for commander in chief, sometimes I think you’re running for pessimist in chief,” Shumlin said. “I gotta tell you — I see Vermont differently. I think it’s a great place to do business.”

    Brock said an unwillingness to assess the landscape honestly will perpetuate “Byzantine regulatory structures” and feed the state’s image as a difficult place to do business.

    “The governor refers to this as doom and gloom. I refer to it as telling Vermonters the truth,” Brock said. “My glasses are clear. They’re not rose-colored.”

    peter.hirschfeld @timesargus.com

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