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Single-payer question on ballot locally

  • Lindsay Sabadosa, the Democratic nominee for the 1st Hampshire District in the Massachusetts House of Represenatives, is a big supporter of Question 4 and single-payer health care.

  • Amherst residents Jeffery Cooley, left, Jacqueline Kang, Lise Halpern and Judy Brooks cast their ballots in Amherst Town Hall on Monday, the first day of the state's new early voting program which runs through November 4. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO



Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 24, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — In Massachusetts there are three questions on the statewide ballot this year.

However, in six western House districts, residents will also be voting on a fourth, which will gauge their support for establishing a single-payer health care system in Massachusetts.

Question 4 will be on the ballot in the 1st Hampshire, 2nd Hampshire, 3rd Hampshire, 1st Franklin, 5th Hampden and 2nd Berkshire districts. In the 2nd Berkshire town of Northfield, however, it will be Question 5, as the voters there will be voting on a local ballot question on whether or not to adopt the Community Preservation Act.

These Question 4s are one of several non-binding public policy questions being voted on in the commonwealth this year.

“How many varies wildly by election,” said Debra O’Malley, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of the Commonwealth.

For instance, she said that in 2012 there were 81 such questions and 55 in 2014 but only one in 2016. She said that many of these earlier questions were marijuana-related, and that she thought that marijuana’s medical and then recreational legalization contributed to the drop-off.

This year, counting the six western Massachusetts single-payer health care questions, commonwealth voters will vote on 13 such questions.

Unlike statewide ballot questions, which require tens of thousands of signatures over two rounds, policy questions require only 200 signatures to get on the ballot in a House district, or 1,200 in a Senate district.

Question 4 has been put forward by Western Mass. Medicare for All, a coalition of groups and individuals advocating for a single-payer health care system on the state level and nationally.

Single-payer health care would see government serve as the health insurer for all residents, or single payer. Western Mass. Medicare for All uses single-payer health care and Medicare for All interchangeably.

“It’s the familiar term,” said Deborah Levenson the co-convenor of Western Mass. Medicare for All.

Levenson said the group’s current focus is on the state level. She said there has been legislation to establish single-payer health care in Massachusetts for almost two decades.

“But it has never been allowed to come out of committee,” she said.

Levenson said Western Mass. Medicare for All has several organizing hubs, some of which are run by other organizations. There is currently a Northampton hub, an Amherst hub, an Easthampton hub, a Holyoke hub, a Springfield hub, a Hilltowns hub, a Franklin County hub and a recently formed South Hadley and Granby hub. The Pioneer Valley chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program and Health Care Providers for Single Payer are also affiliated.

Levenson said the purpose of the hubs is to do public education and visibility work for single-payer health care, as well as organize the Question 4 campaign.

“Their purpose is to carry on the grassroots work,” said Levenson.

Levenson said organizing and interest in single-payer health care has increased recently, and she gave the 2016 presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as a factor for this.

“There’s definitely been a rise and more awareness since the Sanders campaign for sure,” she said.

Judy Atkins heads the single-payer health care task force for Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution, which runs the Franklin County hub of Western Mass. Medicare for All.

“It’s a group that grew out of the Bernie Sanders campaign,” she said.

As to why the single-payer health care question is only on the ballot in western Massachusetts, Levenson credited the long-standing work of local single-payer advocates, including the late Arky Markham, who died earlier this year.

“I think we’re a little better organized,” said Atkins, who noted that there’s been a single-payer health care effort in western Massachusetts for a long time. “There’s a history here.”

In addition to Markham, Levenson noted the death in February of Rep. Peter Kocot, D-Northampton, another single-payer health care supporter.

“We really lost a strong supporter when he died,” she said.

Levenson said that while the area has some really good legislators who are very supportive of single-payer healthcare, a hope of the ballot question is to strengthen legislator support and get legislators to be more involved with the issue.

“It will show that their constituents are right with them,” said Levenson.

Levenson said that there is powerful opposition to single payer. Nevertheless, she said that there’s been recent progress, noting that retiring Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, came around to supporting the policy.

Conceptual support

One of the representatives whom the question is looking to influence is Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke. who represents the 5th Hampden District. Levenson said that Vega doesn’t support single-payer, but that he has been meeting with the group’s Holyoke hub. Vega, however, said that he does support it conceptually.

“I have lots of questions, but I support the concept wholeheartedly,” he said.

Vega said he is currently more focused on making changes to the current health care system to provide better care at Holyoke Medical Center.

He also said that he has been talking to people on the other side of the single-payer issue, and that he has found people to be fearful of a transition to single payer in business and the health care industry.

Vega said the big question for single payer is how, and that a statewide study will likely be required in order to advance it in Massachusetts.

As for Question 4, he said that he is happy to see it on the ballot. He also said he expected it to pass in his district, and that it passing by a larger amount will get his attention more.

“If it has an 81 percent win I’m going to pay more attention,” he said

The 1st Hampshire, 2nd Hampshire, 3rd Hampshire, 1st Franklin districts all had Democratic primaries won by single-payer health care supporters this year, as was the Democratic primary for the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester District in the state Senate. In all these districts, the primary winner is virtually guaranteed to win this year’s general election, with only 2nd Hampshire District nominee Dan Carey of Easthampton even facing a general election opponent in Donald Peltier of South Hadley.

“Our newly elected people are all for single payer,” said Atkins.

One of these likely new representatives is 1st Hampshire District Democratic nominee Lindsay Sabadosa, who has made support for single-payer health care a centerpiece of her campaign. Sabadosa is also backing Question 4.

“It is important to show that there is grassroots support for single payer,” she said.

Sabadosa has posted in support of Question 4 on social media, mentioned it in canvassing stops and included it in her email newsletter. She also said that she will probably be holding a sign for it at the polls on Election Day.

O’Malley said that policy questions oftentimes are used to test out language for statewide ballot questions that carry the force of law. Asked about a statewide question on single-payer, Levenson that there are no plans for one currently, and that the main focus is to get single-payer passed through the legislative process. However, she said that a ballot question will not be taken off the table.

“If it has to go that way it’ll go that way,” she said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.