Vermont May Cut Catamount Health Program

Published March 1, 2009

The Vermont legislature is considering making cuts to the state’s Catamount Health program, a taxpayer-funded health insurance program for low-income individuals enacted in late 2007.

For those able to pay something toward their coverage, the program offers premium support, expecting participants to pay about 25 percent of the monthly premium. Other participants are fully subsidized by taxpayers.

The program’s goal was to enroll 25,000 individuals by 2010, cutting the state’s uninsured rate to 4 percent. By the end of 2008 only 7,052 people had enrolled in the program, with 6,120 of those opting for the subsidized version, according to the Office of Vermont Health Access.

In spring 2008, Vermont lawmakers considered expanding program eligibility to attract more enrollees, though no legislation for doing so was passed.

Cutting Controversial

Catamount Health has a FY 2009 budget of $19.2 million, representing a current-year taxpayer obligation of $3,173 per enrollee. Of that budget allotment, $7.6 million has been spent thus far, according to the state budget office.

With Vermont’s fiscal year set to end July 1, Catamount’s remaining funding allocation strikes some lawmakers as an appropriate place to begin cutting toward their goal of a smaller state budget.

Catamount Health is “unsustainable without additional federal assistance,” said Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham) in December.

State Rep. Steve Maier (D-Middlebury), chairman of the Vermont House Health Care Committee and a co-creator of Catamount, publicly disagreed, telling reporters in January that cutting the bloated, unpopular program “just wouldn’t make sense from a policy or economic standpoint.”

Regulations Driving Costs

Catamount should be cut before good taxpayer money is thrown after bad, experts say.

“Catamount is the state’s version of Maine’s Dirigo Care, and it isn’t faring much better,” said Greg Scandlen, director of Consumers for Health Care Choices at The Heartland Institute. Dirigo Care is a subsidized health insurance plan expanded by Maine’s state legislature in 2008 and then voted back down to its original size by state residents in November.

“Supporters are claiming [Catamount] is necessary because the private market in Vermont requires consumers to pay between $400 and $1,300 per month for insurance, while Catamount coverage can be purchased for $65 to $130,” said Scandlen. “However, it seems unlikely that private coverage would cost that much—and if it actually does, perhaps the state should fix its regulations to make such coverage more competitive.”

Joe Emanuel ([email protected]) writes from Georgia.