Federal lawmakers eye changes to standardized testing in schools

WASHINGTON — Education officials in Vermont are pleased with a step taken by Congress to reduce the high-stakes standardized testing provisions under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Thursday, U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions gave preliminary approval to the Every Child Achieves Act, which would give more authority to states to decide how to evaluate their schools, and would replace the current law that has led to nearly every school in Vermont to be identified as failing.

U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., who serves on the Senate committee, said the annual standardized tests taken by Vermont’s children in grades three through 11 do not fully capture what a child is learning in school.

“I think it is wrong to judge schools solely on the basis of narrow tests. We have to work on what kind of criteria we really need,” Sanders said. “What we in Vermont understand is, a kid is more than a test. We want kids to be creative. We want kids to be critical thinkers. We also want schools held accountable for factors other than test scores, including how they meet the challenges of students from low-income families.”

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act — commonly referred to as No Child Left Behind and signed into law in 2001 — calls for annual testing of math and science skills. Every year, a greater percentage of students are needed to pass the tests in order for a school to meet adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

By 2014, the AYP bar had been raised so high that a single student who does not meet proficiency standards will cause the student’s entire school to be identified as low performing. No Child left Behind includes a provision in which a state can receive a waiver from the high standards, as long as the state agrees to use standardized the scores to evaluate teachers.

Vermont is one of a small handful of states who did not seek out a waiver. As a result, nearly every school in the state has been identified as low performing.

In August, the State Board of Education sent a letter to Congress requesting provisions outlined in the Every Child Achieves Act: more flexibility to evaluate the state’s education system, without placing so much emphasis on standardized testing.

“Although the federal government is encouraging states to use scores for teacher, principal and school evaluations, this policy direction is not appropriate,” the letter reads, noting that standardized tests do not measure other skills called for the by the state’s Education Quality Standards, such as “global citizenship, physical and health education and wellness, artistic expression and transferable 21st-century skills.”

Friday, Stephan Morse, chairman of the State Board of Education, welcomed the news that Congress is looking at a replacement for No Child Left Behind.

“We are encouraged by what the senator is doing and we are encouraged by the new direction they are taking,” Morse said.

Agency of Education Sec. Rebecca Holcombe is also encouraged by the steps being taken by Congress.

“If this bill becomes law, Vermont should have the flexibility to ensure greater equity of opportunities for all students, to ensure all our students are sufficiently supported to reach their full potential, and to ensure all educators are engaged and supported in professional learning and improving instruction,” Holcombe said. “While the proposed bill still requires annual testing, there is an opportunity for states such as Vermont to create innovative assessment systems that work for their needs.”

Capitol Beat with the Governor 4-17-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin discusses an audit of Vermont Health Connect and the exchange’s future.

Governor, speaker at odds over the future of Vermont Health Connect

MONTPELIER — House Speaker Shap Smith says he expects the state to move away from Vermont Health Connect if a key automated function is not in place by the end of May as promised by the Shumlin administration.

Smith’s comments, made Friday on WDEV’s The Mark Johnson Show, are in contrast to how the administration views the self-imposed deadline of May 31 to incorporate the so-called change of circumstance function into the state’s troubled online health insurance marketplace.

“If we don’t actually meet the May 31 deadline I just don’t see how we can go back to Vermonters and suggest that they should continue to have confidence in us to make the system work. So, I think that at that point in time we have to basically reassess where we’re going and my strong believe is that we need to explore other options,” Smith said.

House Speaker Shap Smith speaks on WDEV's The Mark Johnson show Friday, April, 17.

House Speaker Shap Smith speaks on WDEV’s The Mark Johnson show Friday, April, 17.

Gov. Peter Shumlin laid out a new time line for upgrading the exchange last month. He promised that change of circumstance, the ability for customers to make changes to their personal information online, would be working by the end of May. He also said that an automated system allowing costumers to sign up for health plans online would be in place by the fall.

At the time, Shumlin said if either of the new deadlines are missed the state would begin the process of moving to the exchange run by the federal government, or perhaps a state-federal hybrid model.

A performance audit released Thursday by Auditor Doug Hoffer questioned the state’s ability to meet those deadlines. Smith said he was troubled by the report.

“It caused some real concerns for me whether or not we’re going to be able to meet the May 31 deadline, which was set out by the administration. It calls into question, for me, whether the design of the system and the implementation date on May 31 is one that’s achievable,” he said.

Shumlin and Lawrence Miller, his chief of health care reform, now say that the administration will continue working on the change of circumstance functionality through the fall if it is not ready by May 31. They’ll determine whether to continue with Vermont Health Connect in the fall.

“If those aren’t working by November, by the end of November, we’re done. We’re going to either the federal exchange, which is a terrible choice for us, … or to some other hybrid,” Shumlin said in an interview Friday. “We believe that we will have change of circumstance working on May 31.”

Smith said he is not content to wait until the fall to determine how the state will proceed, however.

“The reality is that many Vermonters already have lost confidence in the exchange and I think that if we don’t meet another deadline it’s going to be almost impossible to get any confidence back at all,” he said.

Smith said Friday he is considering ways to force the administration to act if the May deadline is missed. It could involve having lawmakers return over the summer, although Smith acknowledged that only the governor has the authority to call them back into session.

“I could ask, and I think that we ought to be in a place where we have a structure set out that we can move in a different direction. Whether it needs to have the Legislature come back or there’s some other structure to do that, I think, is a matter for discussion,” Smith said.

Other options include using the Legislature’s Health Oversight Committee, Joint Fiscal Committee or Emergency Board to set in place a process to “have decision points to move to a different exchange.”

Shumlin on Friday maintained that the future of Vermont Health Connect will be determined by his administration this fall.

Gov. Peter Shumlin

Gov. Peter Shumlin

“What I laid out a month ago was that change of circumstance has to be working and have to have the bugs fixed to sign up folks in November and that’s when we’ll make that decision,” Shumlin said. “I think the speaker and I agree, this thing’s got to work.”

The governor declined to discuss the options laid out by Smith.

“We’re focused on getting it done,” Shumlin said. “I’m not going to sit here and talk about what happens if it doesn’t work. We’ve said what’s going to happen if it doesn’t work. If the two functions don’t work we’re moving on.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Audit: Exchange remains high risk despite improvements

MONTPELIER — The state has been paying for work that hasn’t been performed and is at a high risk of failing to meet pending key deadlines in the development of the state’s online health insurance exchange, according to a performance audit released Thursday by State Auditor Doug Hoffer.

The audit also indicates growing unease by the state’s largest health insurance carrier, Blue Cross Blue Shield, over billing discrepancies amounting to millions of dollars in unpaid premiums on the company’s ledger.

The myriad malfunctions and setbacks associated with Vermont Health Connect have been well-documented since its bungled launch in October 2013. Key automated functions expected to be part of the online marketplace remain absent, and small businesses must still enroll offline directly through insurance carriers.

Doug Hoffer

Doug Hoffer

That is after nearly $200 million in federal funding has been spent by the state on planning, developing and implementing the exchange to meet requirements laid out in the federal Affordable Care Act.

Rather than rehash the exchange’s known shortcomings, Hoffer’s office spent the past several months reviewing the Shumlin administration’s response to those challenges and whether appropriate changes have been made to achieve the administration’s desired outcomes.

The results outlined in the report are mixed.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, a third-term Democrat, announced last month a new time frame for bringing key automated functions online. The ability to make online changes to one’s personal information, known as change of circumstance, will be in place by May 30, the administration now promises. An automated coverage renewal process will follow and in place by the fall — in time for the next open enrollment period.

Should those deadlines be missed, the administration said last month it will begin to transition away from its own exchange and attempt to migrate to one run by the federal government.

Hoffer’s report outlines several issues that makes meeting the deadlines questionable.

The state’s contract with Optum, the firm now developing VHC, contains no provision allowing the state to seek monetary consequences if it fails to deliver the missing functions. There are no financial penalties or liquidated damages like those in place with the state’s previous contractor, CGI, which the state parted ways with last fall. Nor is there a provision allowing the state to retain payment until the project is complete.

“Without these types of clauses, Optum has assumed little contractual risk and the State has limited its ability to seek recourse if the contractor’s performance is unacceptable. This seems to be a result of the State’s limited leverage to negotiate better terms,” the report states.

Meanwhile, the state does not have a contract in place to complete the second upgrade slated for the fall. If a contract is in place in the next couple of months then completing the project “is considered feasible,” according to the report.

Still, the state will not know if it has the funding to pay for all of the development work until it negotiates a price with Optum. The state would have to reduce the scope of work or find additional funding sources if the developer’s prices is higher than the federal funding available.

“According to an independent verification and validation contractor, as of April 3, 2015, the VHC development project has been in long-term “red,” or high-risk, status due to continuous contracting delays and unresolved agreement on the scope to support all VHC requirements,” the report states.

Hoffer’s report also raises concerns about competition for the staffing and technical resources within state government needed to meet the administration’s self-imposed deadlines. It notes that a March 16 internal project status report indicated that the resources to help meet those deadlines had not yet been confirmed. And there was a lack of agreement between various Agency of Human Services departments about which resources would be allocated to the VHC system development project.

Lawrence Miller, Shumlin’s chief of health care reform and the man charged with righting the ship, acknowledged the report is highly critical and lacks confidence in the administration’s ability to meets its deadlines.

Lawrence Miller

Lawrence Miller

“I don’t know that the track record of Vermont Health Connect has given anybody the basis for confidence,” he said in an interview before the audit’s release. “I think that the auditor’s assessment of the risk of completing the project on time is accurate. There is not a lot of slack in the schedule.”

Still, Miller said the administration remains confident the work will be completed on time.

“This has been done with a good, detailed project plan. Optum and the carriers are saying it’s achievable,” he said. “Things are happening on time.”

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Lawmakers discuss vaccine exemptions for children

MONTPELIER — Senate lawmakers are considering the elimination of the philosophical exemption for parents who wish to send their children to public school without being vaccinated.

Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, introduced an amendment to a bill that modifies how the Department of Health handles information in its vaccine registries. 

Mullin said the amendment addresses concerns both immediate and long term.

“We’re one plane ride away from measles hitting Vermont,” said Mullin, noting a measles outbreak in December in California that spread to 16 other states, including New York.

Mullin’s other concern is the decline in the number of children who are being vaccinated in Vermont.

By one measure, Vermont has one of the lowest rates of child vaccination of any state in the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during the 2012-13 school year, 6.1 percent of children entering kindergarten in Vermont did not receive one or more of 34 vaccinations recommended by age 6 by the CDC.

And not only is Vermont’s rate near the top for the country, it is growing. During the 2011-12 school year, 5.7 percent of incoming kindergartners did not receive one or more vaccinations.

The philosophical exemption is the most common one invoked by Vermont parents who do not want to vaccinate their children. During the 2012-13 school year, 371 children who entered kindergarten without one or more vaccinations claimed a philosophical exemption, compared with 30 children claiming a medical exemption and only 14 claiming religious exemption.

Mullin’s amendment — which includes support from co-sponsors Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington; and Senate Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor — met with opposition from lawmakers who might otherwise support eliminating the philosophical exemption.

Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor, who had a family member with polio and who was a “polio pioneer” by being among the first children to receive the vaccine, said that while he supports vaccination, he opposed the amendment because it was introduced without first being discussed by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, concurred with McCormack, noting that while the issue came up for debate three years ago, there has not been any debate this session.

“I voted for this in the past but I won’t vote for it today,” Cummings said. “The people have a right to be heard, not two years ago or three years ago, but today.”
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, spoke in support of eliminating the philosophical exemption, while suggesting it doesn’t go far enough.

“I’m not even sure there should be a religious exemption,” White said. “If it were up to me, I’d eliminate the religious exemption, too.”

Mullin said that, based on past testimony taken from parents who use the religious exemption, that eliminating it “raises the specter of a court battle.”

In the end, lawmakers decided to take testimony on the issue, which will be limited to new scientific studies issued since the last time they took testimony, and will revisit the issue Wednesday.

McCormack noted that, regardless what decision he and his fellow lawmakers make, parents will be unhappy.

“No matter what we do, large numbers of Vermonters will feel we erred and did an injustice to the people,” McCormack said.

Senate supports climate-change resolution

MONTPELIER — Senate lawmakers have given preliminary approval to a resolution that acknowledges both climate change and impact caused by fossil fuel use.

By a vote of 23 to 5, Senate lawmakers Tuesday approved a resolution that “recognizes that climate change is a real and present danger to health and well-being of all Vermonters,” and “that human activities make a substantive contribution to climate change.”

The resolution was introduced by Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, who serves on the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. The Committee approved the resolution by a vote of 4-0-1.

“It recognizes that the warming in the climate system is unequivocal and the human influence on the climate system is clear and substantive,” Campion said. “It acknowledges the state of Vermont recognizes climate change is a real and present danger to the health and well-being of all Vermonters.”

Vermont has a goal of reducing its carbon foot print by 50 percent — compared with 1990 levels — by the year 2028, and reduce carbon output by 75 percent by 2050. The state has already blown one deadline, by not reducing carbon emissions by 25 percent by the year 2012.

Pointing to the founding fathers of the United States as men who valued the importance of science, Campion argued that lawmakers should take science into account when crafting legislation that could impact the environment.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, spoke in support of the resolution, while noting the state’s financial goals and environmental goals might be at odds.

“I support it, in part, because in the resolution, we take responsibility for our actions.” Pollina noted “It’s somewhat ironic that while we as a state are concerned about climate change and want to do what we can to fight it, that we continue to invest in hope to profit from fossil fuel companies that cause climate change.”

Senators who voted against the resolution included Sens. Peg Flory, R-Rutland; Brian Collamore, R-Rutland; and Norm McAllister, R-Franklin.

The lone Democrat to vote against the resolution — Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans — was also the only member of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee to not vote in favor of it in the first place.

An opponent of large-scale wind projects, Rodgers said the resolution could result in the state approving more such projects without local input.

“I do believe that our climate is changing. I do believe that we are contributing to that change,” Rodgers said. “Absent a serious change in the way the Public Service Board sites renewable energy, I’m not willing to give them another reason — which I believe this is — to rubber-stamp bad renewable energy projects along with the good.”

Sen. Minority Leader Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, explained why he also voted against the resolution.

“I do believe the climate is changing and I do believe that humans have exacerbated that situation,” Benning said. “But, I do not believe this body should grandstand with meaningless resolutions, which ultimately only serve as fodder for political and advocacy organizations to extract dollars from their followers. By forcing us into categories, these proclamation resolutions position us into making decisions based on passion and emotion, rather than careful and deliberative thought.”

Sanders considers campaign logistics as he mulls presidential bid

MONTPELIER — Vermont’s independent Sen. Bernie Sanders is considering the details of how a presidential campaign might look and operate as he nears a decision on whether to run, according to an advisor who met with the state’s junior senator over the weekend.

Tad Devine, a veteran campaign operative who worked on the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry, huddled with Sanders and others in Vermont over the weekend to continue discussions that have been ongoing for months. A decision from the 73-year-old self-described democratic socialist is expected by the end of the month, according to Devine.

“If he’s going to do this it’s going to be a serious campaign. It’s not going to be a symbolic campaign. It’s not going to be Bernie walking around by himself talking to people and maybe having a debate or two later in the year,” he said Monday.

Sanders’ interest in running for president is no secret — he’s flirted with the idea since last year and has traveled several times to Iowa and New Hampshire where the first primary contests take place. But his interest in running has always included some caveats — is there enough support for his vision around the country, and can he raise enough money to compete with Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and first lady who announced her own bid Sunday in a video.

Tad Devine

Tad Devine

Recent trips to Texas, California and Nevada have shown Sanders there is support for his message, according to Devine.

“I think what he’s learning is that there’s a lot of support out there for a … progressive candidate that wants to talk about the issues that he wants to talk about,” Devine said.

Sanders is finding that people are concerned about climate change. And, Devine said, they worry about the impact of the Citizens United court case on American democracy and “the fact that campaigns are no longer about candidates raising money and running campaigns under their own banner.”

“That’s something that he really is finding as he travels around the country that is really there that previously didn’t exist,” Devine said.

Sanders issued a statement Sunday following Clinton’s announcement. Calling the former Democratic New York senator “an experienced and well-qualified leader,” Sanders urged her and other candidates to speak about the issues he cares about.

“During this campaign, it is imperative that Secretary Clinton, like every other candidate, address the great challenges of our time: the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality that is crushing our middle class; high unemployment and low wages; the threat that global climate change presents to our future and the future of our children; and the fact that democracy itself is at risk because of the catastrophic decision of the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case which is allowing billionaires to spend unlimited sums to buy the government of United States,” Sanders said. “I hope that Secretary Clinton will speak out on these and other important issues in the days and weeks ahead.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders

Devine said Sanders understands Clinton has “enormous support,” vast resources and experience from her failed 2008 bid. But a Sanders campaign will focus on promoting his own ideas, not running against Clinton.

“I think one of the things that he understands … is that if he’s going to succeed in this process it’s not going to be by reacting to her in any way. He’s got to plot a distinctive, strategic course to success,” Devine said. “Reacting to Hillary or dealing with her in that respect, no, that’s not really a consideration.”

What is a consideration is whether to run at all, Sanders and his advisors say. Should he choose to run, Sanders will “take some actionable steps” by the end of the month, according to Devine. He declined to comment on the “technical stuff,” like whether Sanders would launch an exploratory committee or a full-throated campaign by May.

“There are many hours to be spent with many lawyers and compliance people before you answer that question. We’ve already had some of that discussion,” Devine said.

If there is a campaign, look for its headquarters to be nestled in the Green Mountains.

“Certainly, if he decides to do this, I think Vermont is probably the best place to sort of center the campaign like [former Gov.] Howard Dean did. He’s got a lot of resources there that know him that want to contribute,” Devine said.

And the resources, including a devoted following willing to work on Sanders’ behalf, are conveniently located right across the Connecticut River from the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

“Being next to New Hampshire is a very good thing for candidates,” Devine said. “All those decisions haven’t been made yet. If he decides to do this he’ll probably want to look at taking advantage of his assets.”

Devine’s media consulting firm, Devine Mulvey Longabaugh, will help guide Sanders’ media strategy if he runs, but the campaign will be run by others.

“Presidential campaigns, they should be run by young people. Guys like me give a lot of advice and maybe have sense of how things work, having done it before,” he said. “We’ll be involved but if he does this we’re going to have to get some good people involved.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

State workers, supporters rally against cuts

MONTPELIER — Hundreds rallied at the State House Saturday to oppose cuts to the state budget and $10.8 million in labor savings sought by both the Shumlin administration and lawmakers in an event organized by the Vermont State Employees Association.

The state employees’s union was joined by other unions and groups, including the Vermont NEA, AFSCME and the Vermont Workers Center, to protest the the budget plan sought by Gov. Peter Shumlin and lawmakers.

VSEA members and supporters held a rally at the State House Saturday, April 11, 2015.

VSEA members and supporters held a rally at the State House Saturday, April 11, 2015.

The House has passed a budget that uses $33 million in new tax revenue, $53 million in cuts and $25 million in one-time funds to close a $113 million budget gap. The VSEA and others, however, want to see more tax revenue raised and fewer cuts.

The House-passed budget includes $10.8 million in labor savings that Shumlin, a Democrat, proposed. He has asked the VSEA to renegotiate its contract to help achieve the savings. Failing to do so will result in hundreds of layoffs, according to the administration.

About $2 million in labor savings has been identified by the administration, but $8.8 million remains of its target. It wants to delay by six months a 2.5 percent cost of living increase due to state employees in the 2016 fiscal year, and delay by one-year step-increases that average out to an additional 1.7 percent pay increase next year. Those steps would require union approval.

The union has so far refused to renegotiate, and has proposed ways to raise additional revenue instead. The 500 or so people gathered at the State House Saturday heard from Ed Olsen, a snow plow driver for the Agency of Transportation, about why the union is not willing to renegotiate.

“I pay taxes to this great state of Vermont, just like all the other hardworking, middle-class people. As a matter of fact, we, the middle-class Vermonters, pay more than 10 percent of our wages to this beautiful statehouse behind me, unlike the wealthy citizens who pay back 8 percent of their wages to our economy,” Olsen said. “That ain’t right. It pisses me off. That’s the biggest reason why I came here today.”

Olsen said the state’s wealthiest residents “aren’t being asked to give up anything.”

Agency of Transportation worker Ed Olsen speaks at State House rally Saturday, April 11, 2015.

Agency of Transportation worker Ed Olsen speaks at State House rally Saturday, April 11, 2015.

“I’m tired of being asked to give back more and more of my wages and benefits to help rescue Vermont’s economy,” he said. “I need every bit of the cash I earn. Vermont has a budget deficit and they always want to balance the budget on the backs of hardworking, middle-class citizens of Vermont.”

Several speakers compared Shumlin to Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has sought concessions from union workers to help save money in that state, including Rev. Earl Kooperkamp of Church of the Good Shepherd in Barre.

“Vermont is not Wisconsin. Peter Shumlin is not Scott Walker. But it’s getting pretty damn hard to tell the difference,” he said.

Kooperkamp equated the effort to obtain savings from state workers to the seventh commandment — thou shalt not steal.

“It’s wrong, it’s immoral, and we’re here to say that,” Kooperkamp said.

The Shumlin administration is expected to meet again early next week to continue negotiations.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Capitol Beat with the Governor 04-10-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin chats with Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami about the ongoing process to find $10.8 million in labor savings from the Vermont State Employees Association. He also discusses a failed effort to ban teacher strikes and lawmakers’ efforts pare down his legislative proposals.

Administration, VSEA find some savings, still far short of $10.8 million target

MONTPELIER — Ongoing talks between the Shumlin administration and the Vermont State Employees Association have resulted in some identified savings, but the union is still not interested in reopening its contract to help secure the remainder of the $10.8 million in labor savings the administration is seeking.

The administration says it needs to cut $10.8 million in labor costs in order to close a $113 million budget gap. The union, meanwhile, has proposed ways to raise revenue instead. The administration has shrugged off those proposals, however, and says it will seek as many as 300 layoffs to achieve the requisite savings if the union does not renegotiate some terms.

The House has passed a passed a budget that incorporates a generic $10.8 million in labor savings.

Justin Johnson

Justin Johnson

Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson, following another meeting with the union Thursday, said his team has found about $2 million in savings by freezing salaries for exempt employees earning more than $100,000 a year, reducing the use of temporary employees and rescinding some benefits to designated managers.

The administration is also considering encouraging employee retirements.

“We have had a long conversation about the idea of retirement incentives,” Johnson said.

But the full benefit of offering retirement incentives is unclear. Johnson said the state treasurer’s office has some concerns because savings to the general fund would be offset elsewhere because of the need to begin paying out benefits. He said the expected savings is between $500,000 and $1 million.

“That would require us not to fill any of the positions that retired. That’s problematic,” Johnson said.

If all of the proposed savings were realized, that would leave about $7.3 million that still needs to be achieved.

With the union’s blessing, Johnson said the administration would look to institute a six-month delay in the 2.5 percent cost of living salary increase the contract calls for in the 2016 fiscal year. That would save about $2.5 million.

“It wouldn’t cost anyone anything because no one’s pay would go down,” he said.

Eliminating one year of “step increases” would save $3.9 million. State workers are grouped into various pay grades, each containing 15 steps. The first five step increases occur in successive years. The next few step increases come every two years, and the remaining step increases come every three years. The pay raises average out to 1.7 percent annually.

Those ideas would require approval from the union.

“There are some big chunks of money that you could save by doing things, but they are contractual,” Johnson said.

The administration is also considering instituting five furlough days to save $3.5 million.

“That in some ways is worse than delaying the cost of living because it means people would actually get a cut in pay,” Johnson said.

Finally, a 50 percent reduction in mileage reimbursements would save more than $800,000.

All of those ideas were outlined in a memo to VSEA President Shelley Martin following a meeting between the two sides on Thursday.

“We’re just making the point that you could get to the numbers by doing some of these things. But, we can get to the numbers anyway,” Johnson said.

VSEA Executive Director Steve Howard said the union is willing to work with the administration on savings “right up to the last hour of the legislative session, but we’re not opening our contract.”

Steve Howard

Steve Howard

“We have been consistent throughout the whole effort … that state employees cannot be asked to dip into their paychecks to balance the state budget before wealthy Vermonters are asked to pay more,” he said.

Union members have been “actively engaged” in the process are not interested in renegotiating the terms of their contract.

The two sides are expected to meet early next week to continue discussions.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read the memo to VSEA President Shelley Martin:

 

Read the Response from VSEA:

Lt. gov casts vote, helps kill changes to law regulating chemicals

MONTPELIER — Lt. Gov. Phil Scott cast a rare vote in the Senate Thursday to break a tie and kill off proposed changes to legislation passed last year that allows the state to regulate “chemicals of concern to children.”

Scott, a Republican, said he has cast fewer than six votes in the Senate since taking office in 2010. The state’s constitution requires the lieutenant governor, the presiding officer of the Senate, to vote when there is a tie.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee was proposing to make changes to Act 188, which passed last year. The law created a reporting mechanism for manufacturers that use certain chemicals in children’s products.

Beginning in July of next year, manufacturers that use chemicals designated by the state as “chemicals of high concern to children” must disclose information about those chemicals to the Department of Health. The law also created a working group that would make recommendations to the health commissioner about regulating designated chemicals.

Language in the law states that the commissioner of Health can move to add a chemical to an existing list of 66 chemicals of high concern to children “upon the recommendation of the working group.” The committee’s amendment sought to amend the law to state that such action could be taken “after consultation” with the group.

Other changes sought in the amendment would require that there be a “reasonable risk of exposure” rather than “children will be exposed” to such chemicals. It also added language that there must be “one or more safer and technically and economically feasible alternatives to the chemical” before it can be added to the list.

The Senate voted to approve those changes to the existing law before considering an amendment from Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, to kill that section of S.139. The changes sought to Act 188 were attached to the legislation, a miscellaneous health bill.

Flory said she heard from members of the business community that were concerned about the proposed changes.

Sen. Peg Flory

Sen. Peg Flory

“They were not thrilled with the bill passed last year,” she said. “With this they were really concerned.”

The vote on Flory’s amendment to eliminate the changes was first taken by voice. Flory then called for “division,” which requires members of the Senate to stand to show how they voted. That resulted in a 15 to 15 tie, requiring Scott to fulfill his constitutional duty.

“I will be voting yes, so the motion passes,” Scott said from the Senate dais.

The lieutenant governor said he sided with the business community, which opposed the changes, so as not to create uncertainty for them.

“I’ve talked a lot over the last couple of years about certainty in the business environment. I remember some of the debate last year and I think there was some exceptions made in the business community, and others came together on this bill. So, I thought, ‘Why not give it a chance to work and see what happens?’” Scott said after the vote.

The Health and Welfare Committee took testimony on the proposed changes to Act 188 last month and heard from several representatives of the business community who were opposed to the changes. Those arguments proved to be enough to scuttle the changes Thursday.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, a member of the committee who presented the proposal to his colleagues on the Senate floor, said the changes would bring the language in the law more in line with the language used by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory authorities.

“We are talking about chemicals that we know are dangerous. I want to make that very clear,” Pollina said. “What we’re trying to do is bring … our law in line with accepted practices.”

Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG, a public advocacy group that pushed heavily for the proposed changes to Act 188, said the law’s current language could “invite legal action” if a commissioner were to add new chemicals to the list. He said he was disappointed with Thursday’s developments.

Paul Burns

Paul Burns

“We want the law to be able to work in order to protect children’s health,” he said. “It’s more difficult, for sure, and some of the language in the current law presents a very high bar for the commissioner to meet if he or she is ever going to take action to regulate a toxic chemical.”

Burns said VPIRG would look at ways to change the outcome before a third and final vote on the underlying bill is taken Friday.

William Driscoll, vice president of the Associated Industries of Vermont, said he and others opposed to the changes would look to preserve Thursday’s outcome.

“Frankly, at some point, if people go overboard trying to undo something, it doesn’t look very good for them. At some point some sort of sense of seemliness and appropriate behavior has to prevail,” Driscoll said. “It would be kind of analogous to that they’re trying to undue what the did last year, and then they try to undue what they did just the next day. I guess they need to decide what kind of people they want to be.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Shumlin decries price hike in opiate overdose antidote

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin is asking the maker of a drug that serves as an antidote for opiate overdoses and has saved nearly 200 lives in Vermont to curb rapidly-rising prices as demand for the drug grows.

Shumlin, speaking at a State House news conference Wednesday, said the price of naloxone, made by Amphastar Pharmaceuticals, has jumped 62 percent in about a month. The cost of 10 doses of the nasal spray cost the state $113 in early March. Now, that cost has jumped 62 percent to $183, according to Shumlin.

“As the demand has increased, as smart states like Vermont have said, ‘We’re not going to let folks who suffer from disease die before our eyes because we don’t have the courage to have the rescue kits available,’ the company CEO has said, ‘Great, how can we make some more money on this?’” Shumlin said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks at a State House news conference Wednesday, April 8, 2015.

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks at a State House news conference Wednesday, April 8, 2015.

“My suspicion is the price increase is the result of capitalist instincts for more money,” the governor added.

Shumlin and members of his Criminal Justice and Substance Abuse Cabinet sent a letter to Amphastar CEO Jack Zhang Wednesday asking that the company “return to more reasonable prices.”

State officials say nearly 1,900 doses of Naloxone have been distributed around the state. Shumlin signed legislation to equip every Vermont State Trooper with the drug and distribute it to first responders and addiction treatment centers.

Shumlin said about 10 percent of the naloxone kits have been used and saved a life.

“We have saved 190 lives that we know about, that have been recorded by my Department of Health, as a result of getting this simple procedure in folks’ pockets,” he said.

But Bob Bick, CEO of the Howard Center in Burlington, said the state continues to battle opiate addiction and treatment needs are still not being met.

“The reality is that we continue to have a significant opiate addiction problem in the state of Vermont. We need to be focusing on prevention, treatment and intervention,” he said.

Bick said the Howard Center has 305 people on a waiting list and another 500 people have made contact with the agency but have not yet made it on to a waiting list. Those are the people that are most likely to need doses of naloxone, according to Bick.

“It’s really about those folks who are on the waiting list and the folks who have contacted us that we’re having this conversation today about naloxone. It really is about saving lives and the reality is, and I know it sounds trite, but this is a life and death issue,” he said.

The letter asks for the company to extend the same $6 rebates it negotiated with New York to other states.

“We implore your company to stop the steep increase in the price of naloxone, which is threatening our efforts to distribute rescue kits and save lives,” the letter reads. “Opiate addiction is a disease, and in Vermont we are treating it as such. We are reducing the stigma associated with addiction, expanding treatment, and saving lives. The soaring cost of naloxone threatens to thwart our progress.”

Shumlin said the company has not offered the state any explanation for the rapid hike in price. He said he doubts that higher demand for the drug is the cause.

“It’s entirely possible that’s the case, and if so, I would urge the company to make more of it because they’re being successful. But, generally, in the pharmaceutical industry, the trend has never been quite that altruistic when it comes to pricing for Americans buying pharmaceutical products,” he said.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings sent their own letter to Amphastar last month inquiring about the rising cost of naloxone.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

State, insurance carriers work to fix billing discrepancies

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration is working with the state’s health insurance carriers to reconcile millions of dollars in billing discrepancies resulting from Vermont Health Connect’s lack of key functions.

The reconciliation process has been ongoing for about three weeks, according to Lawrence Miller, Gov. Peter Shumlin’s chief of health care reform. Because automated functions on the state’s online insurance exchange are not working, the state’s carriers — Blue Cross Blue Shield and MVP Health Care — have billed out millions in premiums that have not been paid.

“It’s all because the automated change of circumstance functionality isn’t working,” Miller said.

Lawrence Miller

Lawrence Miller

The state worked with carriers to create contingency plans and develop manual processes to ensure people received coverage when the exchange launched in October 2013 with the automated functions in place. But the nature of those processes did not allow information to be easily shared between the state and the carriers.

Miller said the state focused its attention on signing people up for health plans and manually processing so-called change of circumstance requests for those who needed personal information change in order to receive benefits. Left at the back of the line were requests that would have resulted in the termination of coverage.

“They were not necessarily processing terminations or cancellations as a very high priority,” Miller said.

As a result, the insurance carriers in many cases were not informed by the state that they should stop billing customers. That left the carriers with gaping holes on their own ledgers that must be addressed through a laborious process of comparing records with the state. They are now working with the state and its contractors to determine if they are really owed money for the unpaid premiums on their books.

There is also a pool of money collected by Benaissance, a health care benefits administration firm the state uses to process payments, that has not been distributed. The money is the result of premium payments sent in by customers but without enough information to apply the credit to an account. There are at least “a few hundred checks” in that category, according to Miller.

All sides are hesitant to definitively state how much money is at stake. But Miller said at one point BCBS thought it could be as high as $4 million.

“I hesitate to quantify it until they’ve actually gone through the work,” Miller said. “It represents maximum exposure because if there are claims in there where people were covered and they do actually owe money, then we’ll go ahead and work with them to collect that.”

Cory Gustafson director of government and public relations for BCBS, said the company does not have a clear idea of how large the discrepancy is.360healthbystate_doc_6c2e5968

“It continues to change and the reconciliation process changes that even further,” he said. “I wouldn’t use that math. I know that that number has been up and done and all over the place.”

Miller said about 70 percent of the cases that have been resolved are the result of customers terminating their policy without the carriers knowing. If that percentage were to hold for all of the cases in question, the carriers could still be owed a significant amount of money.

“There is a chance,” Gustafson admitted.

The amount of money in question is significantly higher for BCBS than it is for MVP. BCBS sells more insurance plans in Vermont, but it also had a policy of keeping those plans on the books rather than risk mistakenly terminating them.

Miller said BCBS was more willing to take on risk to avoid creating unintended coverage gaps for customers. MVP, meanwhile, canceled policies more freely to avoid such a risk.

“They didn’t want that exposure. We had a bunch of people that we had to intervene with — hundreds — where MVP didn’t check with Vermont Health Connect,” Miller said. “They just did it.”

Gustafson said BCBS was looking to ensure the smoothest transactions possible for its customers, and therefore did not terminate policies unless there was very clear reason to do so.

“From our perspective, it’s all about the members,” he said. “Every choice we’ve made, every contingency, has been with the perspective that it will be better for the people that are buying plans on Vermont Health Connect. How we feel about it is irrelevant,” Gustafson said.

Still, he said clearing up the discrepancies remains a priority for BCBS. And he said the company is counting on the Shumlin administration to deliver on its promise to complete work on the automated systems the exchange now lacks to avoid a continuation of the existing problems.

“Any time there’s accounts receivable Blue Cross Blue Shield takes it seriously,” Gustafson said. “To us, our accounts receivable balance really symbolizes how important it is for the governor’s plan to be implemented to get to a fully functional exchange. The exchange isn’t going anywhere.”

The administration has said those automated functions will be in place by the end of May. If not, the administration has said it will abandon the state exchange and transition to one managed by the federal government.

Miller said the next release of the website is expected by May 30, at which time he expects all of the 2014 billing issues to be resolved, as well as any new ones created this year.

“It all has to be wrapped up before go live,” he said. “We want a clean and stable data set.”

For now, the carriers and the state are working together to resolve the issue. Both the state and the insurance carriers said they were aware that issues were likely when the exchange launched in October 2013 without all of the automated functions working.

“We all knew we were going to have to go through the reconciliation process and we all knew it would be a bear the first year. The automated reconciliation stuff isn’t set up yet and we have all these manual processes,” Miller said. “This is not a dispute between the state and Blue Cross right now, or MVP.”

Some “differences of opinion” could emerge once the reconciliation process is completed if the carriers’ books are not balanced, Miller said.

“If there is some bad debt at the end of that process it’s going to be a question of what’s the expected rate of bad debt accumulation at a carrier,” Miller said. “We shouldn’t cover what’s normal.”

imagesMVP spokeswoman Jacqueline Marciniak issued a brief statement Tuesday,

“MVP Health Care is committed to working with exchange officials to reconcile discrepancies and develop a solution that is mutually beneficial to our members and to the state of Vermont,” she wrote in an email.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Dem leaders look to kill ban on teacher strikes

MONTPELIER — Democratic leaders are maneuvering to amend a bill slated to hit the House floor Wednesday by replacing language that calls for a ban on teacher strikes and the imposition of labor contracts by school boards with a study.

That would significantly weaken the legislation, H.76, that has been pushed heavily by Republican Rep. Kurt Wright of Burlington. Although he has secured a vote on the bill from Democratic leaders, they are now looking to kill off key parts.

In addition to the ban on strikes and contract impositions, it would institute a 1-cent tax rate increase on districts that cannot reach a contract agreement within one year.

Rep. Tim Jerman

Rep. Tim Jerman

House Deputy Assistant Majority Leader Tim Jerman, D- Essex, said Democrats are considering an amendment to be offered on the House floor that would institute a study on whether teacher strikes should be banned.

“We anticipate having an amendment tomorrow that will change that somewhat substantially and be a study looking at the whole issue,” he said. “As of right now that’s what’s on the table.”

Jerman said he believes the Democratic leadership team will secure enough votes to pass an amended bill that will provide “an unfettered study that isn’t biased one way or the other.”

“I think so,” Jerman said. “It’s been a difficult count because the bill keeps changing.”

The bill is getting a floor vote because of commitments made by the leadership team in order to move a larger education bill through the chamber. Wright and others are now working to secure enough votes to maintain the strike ban.

Wright, who plans to hold a news conference about the bill Tuesday morning, said he expects some independents and about 12 to 15 Democrats will join the Republican caucus. It’s unclear whether that coalition can fend off the Democratic leadership’s efforts, though.

“I think that it’s time for us to act. This bill has been around for a long time,” Wright said. “We either want to ban strikes and the imposition of contracts or not.”

Rep. Kurt Wright

Rep. Kurt Wright

House Minority Leader Don Turner said House Republicans will stand together in support of the ban.

“We feel that it’s time to implement the ban on strikes. I think there’s been enough harm over the years, the most recent in South Burlington. It’s time to stop that. Police officers, fire fighters, they’re essential. They can’t strike. I think it’s time in Vermont to put teachers under that same category,” he said.

But he, too, said it is unclear how the House will vote on Wednesday.

“I am very hopeful. I am confident in our caucus and where we’re going to be. The problem is I don’t know what the (Democrats) will be offering up to their members to not vote for it. All we can do is stick together to support this.”

The bill cleared the House Education Committee on a 8 to 3 vote. However, the General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, which oversees labor issues, rejected the bill on a 5 to 3 vote.

The bill puts the Vermont NEA, which opposes the bill, at odds with the Vermont School Boards Association, which supports it. Gov. Peter Shumlin angered the union last fall when he declared during an ongoing teacher strike in South Burlington that such strikes should be banned.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Lawmakers to discuss guns, education and health care

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers this week will tackle issues related to health care, economic development, gun control, education and advanced directives for the terminally ill.

Tuesday, the Senate is expected to give final approval to a bill that would expand the circle of people who are authorized to make end-of-life decisions for a patient who lacks the capacity to do so for himself or herself.

Current law allows for family members — spouse, parent, adult child, sibling, or grandchild — members of the clergy to make decisions regarding do-not-resuscitate (DNR) orders or an order to continue life-sustaining treatment.

The proposed bill would allow for the designation of one or more “surrogates” who are capable of acting “in accordance with the patient’s known wishes and values,” the bill states.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate will take up an economic development bill that would lower the wage threshold for employers to qualify for the Vermont Economic Growth Initiative, a state program that provides financial incentives for employers in a number of fields — including manufacturing and technology — who offer their employees a “livable wage.”

The bill before the Senate would lower that wage amount from $14.64 an hour to $13 an hour. Critics of the bill say the reduction in the salary threshold could end up costing the state money as more workers qualify for public assistance.

Still on the Senate side, this week, the Senate Education Committee will discuss a school-district merger bill approved last week by the House. The bill calls for school districts to study and come up with proposals on how they will merge into districts with at least 1,100 students.

In a nod to the narrative coming out of the November elections that voters are fed up with rising property taxes, the bill includes a provision to cap education spending if it exceeds this year’s rate of growth of 2.95 percent.

Over on the House side, the Judiciary Committee will discuss and take testimony on a gun-control bill approved by the Senate in March. The bill would require the state to report individuals who have been adjudicated by a court as a danger to himself or others to the National Instant Criminal Background Check Registry.

The committee will take testimony from advocates of the bill — such as Ann Braden, co-founder of Gun Sense Vermont — and opponents, including Ed Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, who will likely rehash the arguments heard throughout the session in the Senate Judiciary Committee and during a public hearing in February.

Barring any surprises in the House Judiciary Committee, the real debate will likely occur when and if the bill comes up for a vote in the House.

On the health care front, the House Appropriations Committee will discuss a bill approved by a narrow margin last week by House Ways and Means that would raise taxes on cigarettes by 25 cents a pack and would impose an excise tax of 0.5 cents an ounce on sweetened beverages, which is projected to raise approximately $18 million.

The money is intended to leverage federal dollars to raise reimbursement rates for Medicare and Medicaid, but is less than the $52 million in revenue proposed by the House Health Care Committee.

The Appropriations Committee is expected to take recommendations from the Health Care Committee as to how the money should be used.