Richter and Oxfeld Driving Forces Behind Vermont’s New Healthcare Bill

June 15, 2011  
Filed under Business

By Sarah Zobel

An idealist and a self-described “noodge” walked into Vermont’s statehouse. By the time they came out, the legislature had passed a single-payer healthcare bill.

It wasn’t quite that simple, and there were other players, but no one disputes the fact that Deb Richter, M.D., and Ellen Oxfeld, PhD, collectively served as a driving force behind the passage of Vermont’s first-in-the-nation healthcare reform bill. More than a decade after the two women first met and started corralling their energies toward bringing insurance equity to all Vermonters, bill H.202 was signed into law by Gov. Peter Shumlin on May 26, 2011.

Richter admits that she was a bit idealistic when she started practicing medicine in Buffalo, N.Y. She saw patient after patient who had waited too long to get treatment because of no insurance; some of them had put off a doctor’s visit for so long that there was nothing Richter could do by the time they did come to her office.

“I was in shock that people were denied care or they couldn’t get it because they had no insurance,” Richter says. “Here I was doing primary care in the inner city and I thought, ‘ How long can I do this without getting totally frustrated?’ And that’s when I realized we really could do something about it. All we needed to do was eliminate the insurance industry!”

Since that wasn’t likely anytime soon and New York seemed too big for her efforts to have an effect, Richter instead decided to move to Vermont, where she felt things could happen.

The stories here were no better: a sugarmaker spilled hot sap all over his abdomen — despite a serious burn the size of a dinner plate, he didn’t seek medical treatment for several days. By the time Richter saw him, he had a secondary infection and ended up in intensive care, where he stayed for a week. Another patient, a woman who owned her own business and had a family history of colon cancer and signs of the disease herself, waited to get a colonoscopy because she was uninsured.

Richter realized that “even in a good state like Vermont, clearly we had to do something.”
Within six months of moving here in 1999, she’d spoken with Speaker of the House Michael Obuchowski—he contacted Richter after reading a letter to the editor she’d written—and Governor Howard Dean, both of whom supported health-care reform. Ellen Oxfeld also contacted Richter before she’d even unpacked her belongings, and invited Richter to speak at a forum at Middlebury Library.

Oxfeld is a professor of anthropology at Middlebury College who has been active in political organizing since helping with Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign while in junior high. There was no defining moment for Oxfeld in terms of single-payer healthcare—she says it’s just always been a cause she’s supported.

Together, the two women helped establish Vermont Health Care for All in 2003; Richter now serves as president and Oxfeld as vice president. The organization’s goal is to educate residents about publically financed healthcare, and in 2009, they created the Vermont Single Payer website, the only online reference source exclusively dedicated to single-payer care in Vermont. Oxfeld notes that there are other useful websites, including the Vermont Workers’ Center’s Healthcare Is a Human Right site, but, she says, “Ours is a little more policy-oriented and wonky.”

Oxfeld learned to use the website and e-blasts to organize rallies and ask people to contact their representatives and speak out about proposed amendments—in particular, the amendment that would have excluded migrant workers from coverage. Richter, meanwhile, became the face of single-payer health care, traveling around the state and speaking at more than 400 forums, rallies, and meetings to explain the sometimes confusing initiative.

Anya Rader Wallack, special assistant to the governor for health care, calls the two women “doggedly determined” in their efforts. “They’ve been available 24/7 to respond to opponents, organize supporters, and persuade legislators,” she says. “They’ve made a real difference in terms of making sure that at every turn in this process we had lots of supporters standing behind us.”

But both Richter and Oxfeld are quick to note that they were far from the only Vermonters working to pass the legislation.

“I know I’ve dedicated a lot of time to this issue,” says Oxfeld, “but a lot of people have, and that’s what makes Vermont so great. It’s a state where you can really get involved, and make a change for the better, for the common good. I do think Vermont is unique in that way.”

This summer, Oxfeld will be coordinating a number of public forums so citizens can learn what the Bill means, as well as what remains to be done, while Richter continues her travels around the state. Richter has company on the road now, as a handful of other doctors and nurses are sharing the touring duties with her. The goal is to establish a network of 35 or 40 physicians who understand and are willing to speak about the new plan. Both women are hopeful that this is the first of many steps to overhauling healthcare not only in Vermont, but nationwide, and who speak honestly but energetically about the future.

“You’re never finished,” says Richter, noting that there will always be opposition that will work to dismantle health-care reform. “I can’t ever imagine my work will be done.”


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