More than 2,000 people showed up at the Vermont Statehouse on Sunday to protest an amendment to the universal health care bill that would exclude undocumented workers.
Vermont is on a fast track to becoming the first state to have a single-payer health care system. Both chambers of the Legislature have passed universal health care bills and a conference committee is hashing out differences in amendments before a final measure is sent to Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin.
But activist groups and some lawmakers are outraged by a last-minute amendment added to the Senate bill that would exclude undocumented workers from receiving health care under the single-payer system.
The Brock-Sears amendment, which is based on requirements under the U.S. health care law, would make it illegal for Vermont to spend federal dollars on people who are not legal residents. Many state lawmakers say that the legislation is in line with what is required by the federal statute for Vermont to get the waivers it needs to implement its law.
“We wouldn't provide membership to someone from Iowa who was here temporarily, so why would we do so for someone here illegally who, by definition, is here temporarily?” Sen. Randy Brock, R-Vt., asked on Fox News. “We passed a bill to provide Vermonters with universal health care, not to have Vermonters provide the universe with health care.”
But advocates for migrant farmworkers argue that they are the lifeblood of the Vermont dairy industry and deserve to be covered under the health care system.
“I serve on the Agriculture Committee and work with the migrant-farmer community. There are two things keeping the dairy industry alive out here and one of those is migrant workers,” Sen. Philip Baruth said in a telephone interview. “When you look at these amendments, you see they are trying to whittle down the pool of people who will benefit from the system.”
Vermont’s dairy industry relies heavily on the work of migrant farmworkers from Central and South America. According to advocacy organizations in Vermont, 1,500 to 2,000 undocumented workers are employed by dairy farms in the state, and most pay taxes.
“They are paying taxes, paying for Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security but don’t have access to these services,” said James Haslam, director of the Vermont Workers Center. “We have a law in Vermont that no one can be turned away from hospitals, so the undocumented workers are going to the emergency rooms. Providers don’t get paid for that.”
“It doesn’t make sense on a financial level to restrict migrant workers from universal health care,” he added.
The conference committee will likely reexamine the amendment this week.