Shumlin admin to offer all-payer waiver request by end of June

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin says the state’s preliminary application for an all-payer waiver to level reimbursements to health care providers among all payers will be submitted by the end of June.

A universal, publicly-financed health care system is off the table. And Shumlin’s grand plan to pump additional funds into Medicaid through a $90 million payroll tax was ignored by lawmakers. But the administration has been making steady progress on another major reform in health care — changing the payment structure.

An all-payer waiver will allow the state to move forward with an ambitious plan to eliminate the current fee-for-service payment model that pays providers for each procedure and replace it with a system that pays providers on the quality of care they provide and the health outcomes of their patients.

Gov. Peter Shumlin

Gov. Peter Shumlin

“This is taking Medicare, Medicaid, private pay, in other words our entire payment system, and moving it to one where we literally pay our providers for keeping us healthy and giving them skin in the game,” Shumlin said in a recent interview. “It’s a revolution in the way we pay for health care. They get paid for keeping you healthy not for the number of things they do to you.”

State officials say if Vermont obtains the waiver from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, all insurance plans will pay the same amount and providers will have an incentive to work collectively to have the best health outcome that is not paid for based on the number of tests and procedures performed.

Currently, Maryland is the only state operating under an all-payer waiver, and has been doing so since the late 1970s. But Maryland’s system only sets Medicaid rates for hospitals. In Vermont, the goal is to take it further and include primary care providers and specialists as well as hospitals.

“What we’re talking about in Vermont is doing it with everybody, including Medicare, which is, of course, where the bulk of our money is,” Shumlin said. “It really is a very, very significant conversation.”

Officials with CMS will visit Vermont in the next couple of weeks to work with state officials on its application. The process requires rolling at least two waivers into one document that the state and federal government can agree on. Shumlin said his administration will have the document completed by the end of June, and the state should have an idea this fall whether the project is feasible.

Vermont currently has a Medicaid waiver to spend federal matching dollars outside of more rigid federal regulations. That waiver, known as the global commitment waiver, has been around since the administration of former Republican Gov. James Douglas, but it expires at the end of 2016.

The state’s application will also include a Medicare waiver that will allow it to spend Medicare funds outside the current regulations. However, “In no way does the state take control of Medicare money,” says Al Gobeille, chairman of the Green Mountain Care Board, the state’s health regulatory body.

Al Gobeille

Al Gobeille

“They are such substantially different waivers. What Medicare would be willing to do is relax its payment rules so we could tell them ahead of time how we’re going to do our rules and set our standards of care to meet their measures,” he said.

Completing the state’s preliminary application will only begin a long process of reforming the health care payment system in Vermont, Gobeille said. Once the state and federal governments come to terms, physicians will also have to buy in. Gobeille said the will take its plan to providers and ask them, “What do you think?”

“That begins a whole process of making sure that this is a good idea,” he said.

There are plenty of ways the project could crumble, though, both Shumlin and Gobeille said.

“My take is we’re going to negotiate with the federal government. There’s a possible chance that we could walk away and then maybe next year we try again. I’ve been clear with the governor and the legislature that if we don’t get something that’s a good idea … for both sides then we should exercise caution,” Gobeille said. “I don’t know if this is a good idea or bad idea yet until I know what the federal government is willing to do.”

Shumlin said he is worried about the ability to level out payments from all payers in a way that is fair.

“It could fall apart … at any time because it’s all fine to have everybody sitting around and agreeing that the current system is broken and we’ve got to fix it. The fight’s going to come when start talking about who gets paid what,” he said.

The state’s health care systems — hospitals and their subsidiaries — have varying interests based on their size and location. Shumlin said balanced those interests will be difficult.

“Here’s where this thing could fall apart — who is the person or people that controls the money? Let’s be honest, if it’s the big hospitals you lose all of the little folks. If it’s the little folks, the big people distrust. So, we have a huge project ahead to find an objective, transparent, trustworthy process that everyone can believe in or it will never work,” the governor said.

Reforming the payment system is crucial, though, to bending the cost curve in health care, he said.

“We’re all dead if we don’t get this one right because it will bankrupt us,” Shumlin said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Sanders to hold campaign kick-off Tuesday in Burlington

MONTPELIER — Sen. Bernie Sanders will hold a formal campaign kick-off event for his presidential bid on Tuesday at Burlington’s Waterfront Park, his campaign announced Wednesday.

Sanders, Vermont’s junior senator in Washington, has already filed to become a candidate, but plans to announce his candidacy along the shore of Lake Champlain in the city where his political career began as mayor in 1981. The independent promises free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and live music.

Sen. Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders

“My hometown of Burlington and the people of Vermont have a special place in my heart. There is nowhere else in the world where I would hold an event this important,” Sanders said in a statement.

The self-described democratic socialist is sure to provide many of his trademark assaults on the “billionaire class” and the income inequality he says is plaguing America.

“The formal kickoff will set the stage for the campaign to come. I will lay out an ‘Agenda for America’ which addresses the major crises we face and a vision of a government which works for all of our people and not just the billionaire class,” Sanders said.

The even will take place at 5 p.m. along Burlington’s waterfront. It will be moved to Memorial Auditorium in Burlington in the event of rain.

Sanders’ campaign announced he will then travel to New Hampshire, the site of the nation’s first primary, on Wednesday, before heading to Iowa, site of the first presidential caucus, on Thursday.

State to move out-of-state inmates to Michigan

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The Vermont Department of Corrections says the state’s prison inmates being housed out of state are going to be moved to Michigan.

The department said Tuesday it had signed a contract with the GEO Group to house the inmates at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan.

Currently Vermont is housing 319 inmates at facilities in Kentucky and Arizona. That contract expires June 20. The department will begin transferring the inmates to Michigan soon.

The new two-year, $30.4 million contract with GEO will save the state about $2,055 per inmate per year. The state says GEO will provide “comprehensive correctional management services,” including offender rehabilitation programs.

For years Vermont has sent a number of inmates to out-of-state facilities to alleviate overcrowding in the state’s prisons.

Rate increases sought by BCBS and MVP

MONTPELIER — The state’s two health insurance providers offering individual and business plans on Vermont Health Connect have submitted requested rate increases to the state for next year.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont and has requested an 8.4 percent increase in rates, while MVP Health Care is asking for a 3 percent average rate increase, according to the Green Mountain Health Care Board, the state’s regulatory body for health care issues.

In its filing with the GMCB, BCBS said state and federal mandates are a significant reason for the rate increases for its federally qualified health plans, as well as rising medical and pharmaceutical costs.

“In the absence of mandated changes associated with the Affordable Care Act, a 5.3 percent increase would have been requested,” BCBS wrote in its filing.

Actual rate increases, depending on health plans, range between 4.7 percent and 14.3 percent for BCBS. The changes will impact about 41,000 customers and amounts to about $29.4 million in higher premiums, according to the filing.

“We recognize that this increase is likely to be difficult to absorb for many individuals and small businesses who receive their coverage through qualified health plans, and we have done everything we can to reduce it, without risking access to quality care in the state,” BCBS President and CEO Don George said in a statement. “Unfortunately, a key factor contributing to premium growth has not changed. The Medicaid and Medicare cost shift continues to burden privately insured Vermonters with a disproportionate amount of health care cost increases.”

Increases requested by MVP, meanwhile, range between a decrease of 1.8 percent and an increase of 27.3 percent. The 27.3 percent increase is for the company’s catastrophic health plan.

MVP has a much smaller customer base, however, so the changes will impact 3,324 customers and lead to $951,000 in higher premiums paid.

Gov. Peter Shumlin on Monday said the increases are higher than he would like. But the increases sought for health plans on Vermont Health Connect, the state’s online health insurance marketplace created under the federal Affordable Care Act, are lower than would be expected for plans outside the exchange, he said.

“Let’s be honest, that’s going to look good compared to what businesses are used to,” he said.

Part of the increase should be attributed to the so-called cost shift, the governor said, where private insurance picks up the cost of low payments to providers by Medicaid and Medicare.

“We keep kicking the can down the road on Medicaid, so the cost shift happens to everyone paying for insurance, including the exchange. That’s private insurance,” Shumlin said.

Lawmakers, who wrapped up the first half of the legislative biennium on Saturday, rejected Shumlin’s plan to institute a 0.7 percent payroll tax on Vermont businesses to address the cost shift. The plan would have raised $90 million that would have been matched by $100 million in federal funds. That money would have allowed the state to boost Medicaid payments and ease the burden on private insurance.

Two public hearings will be held by the GMCB at the State House this summer. The public can comment on the MVP request on July 28 and those wishing to comment on the BCBS request can do so on July 29. The board will make a decision by August 13 on the rates that will take effect Jan. 1, 2016.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Tax deal struck, adjournment looming

MONTPELIER — After a week of veiled veto threats and behind-closed-doors meetings, Gov. Peter Shumlin emerged from his ceremonial office Saturday afternoon with legislative leaders to announced a tax deal — the linchpin paving the way for adjournment.

“I’m really pleased to announce that we’ve reached a deal on the budget that allows us to balance the budget and raise the revenue for the budget in a way that’s not only fiscally responsible but ensures that we can continue to grow this economy for every single Vermont,” Shumlin said, with House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell on either side of him.

unnamedDetails of the $30 million in new taxes raised to balance the 2016 fiscal year budget were to be released later Saturday.

“Everyone has given a little. I think it’s an incredibly sensible plan and most importantly we’re meeting our commitment that we all pledged to keep in this building in January of closing a budget gap by making smart choices for Vermonters and ensuring that our budget is sustainable going forward,” the governor said.

Lawmakers strike tax deal without gov’s approval

MONTPELIER — House and Senate negotiators were nearing a deal on a $30 million revenue package early Saturday morning that will help balance the 2016 fiscal year budget and close a projected $113 million gap — but includes provisions Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he does not support.

The bulk of the new revenue comes from changes to the income tax code. Both the House and Senate have agreed with the governor to raise $15 million by eliminating taxpayers’ ability to deduct their prior year local and state taxes on their state returns.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, briefs reporters late Friday night on a tax plan. (Photo by Erin Sigrist)

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, briefs reporters late Friday night on a tax plan. (Photo by Erin Sigrist)

But the House and Senate are also looking to raise about $10.5 million by making changes to how much taxpayers can deduct. Under the plan lawmakers were nearing agreement on, income tax deductions would be capped at two times the standard deduction — about $25,000 for a couple. The plan exempts charitable donations and deductions for catastrophic health care costs, however.

In total, lawmakers are looking to raise $26 million in new income taxes with the changes.

Shumlin has spent much of the week restating his opposition to lawmakers’ plans to limit deductions. He made that case again to the Vermont Press Bureau in an interview Friday morning.

“The reason states don’t tend to cap these deductions … is because they all provide an important role in ensuring you have a strong economy and a strong state and an economy that works for every single member of that state,” Shumlin told the Vermont Press Bureau in an interview. “Among the tax choices that are going to be made, let’s not make illogical choices.”

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, has said Shumlin has threatened to veto the revenue bill because of his opposition to deduction limits.

But that didn’t stop lawmakers from forging ahead.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said he worked with the House to complete a revenue plan both chambers could agree on.

“The governor’s made no hesitation to say that he would prefer that the only income tax that’s raised be the $15 million that he raised,” Ashe said. “We arrived at what we thought was a fair way to raise the money and that we could reach agreement with the House.”

House Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Janet Ancel, D-Calais, echoed Ashe’s comments, saying the revenue plan is one that both sides have agreed to.

“We’re trying to get a revenue bill and trying to get out of here,” Ancel said.

House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, acknowledged the tax deal was arrived at without the governor’s approval.

“That is true, yes,” the speaker said.

But the plan addresses many of the concerns Shumlin has raised, according to Smith.

“We’ve responded to a number of the concerns that the governor expressed, particularly around the health care and the charitable deduction. We tried to address that. So, my hope is that in addressing those things we can move closer together. I’m eternally optimistic, but perhaps it is unwarranted in this instance,” he said.

The deduction cap included in the deal is fair, Smith said.

“You’re going to get a $25,000 cap on your itemized deductions. That’s a significant amount of allowable deductions, including, on top of that, charitable deductions and for medical. It seems to me pretty reasonable,” he said.

Lawmakers planned to complete the deal early Saturday morning and return later in the day to have both chambers vote on it. Smith declined to comment on how lawmakers would address a potential veto by Shumlin.

“We’ll take it one step at a time,” Smith said.

Scott Coriell, spokesman for Shumlin, left the State House around 11:30 p.m. Friday and said the administration was reviewing the proposal and would have no comment until later on Saturday.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, left, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, speak during budget negotiations Friday.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, left, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, speak during budget negotiations Friday.

The revenue plan also includes extending the state’s 6 percent sales tax to soft drinks, which will raise $5.1 million, extending the 9 percent rooms and meals tax to vending machine purchases, and includes a 3 percent minimum tax on taxpayers earning at least $150,000.

“That’s more of a floor payment on people with larger incomes,” he said.

The House and Senate had also agreed in principal to the budget and were expected to sign off on it early Saturday morning.

Capitol Beat with the Governor 5-15-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin and Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami chat about the end of the session and the bills that are still in play.

Gov. Peter Shumlin on the Capitol Beat podcast Friday, May 15, 2015.

Gov. Peter Shumlin on the Capitol Beat podcast Friday, May 15, 2015.

House GOP will support veto of tax bill

MONTPELIER — House Republicans voted in caucus Thursday afternoon to help sustain a veto of a revenue bill — if Gov. Peter Shumlin elects to veto the legislation — as House and Senate negotiators look to finalize how they will raise money to support the state budget.

GOP Leader Don Turner, of Milton, asked his caucus to take a position Thursday as negotiators continued to work.

“It’s my feeling that if the governor is going to step up and help us … then I think that’s a good thing,” Turner said.

Shumlin is opposed to how lawmakers have chosen to raise revenue. The House plan caps income tax deductions at 2.5 times the standard deduction. The Senate plan caps mortgage interest deductions and limits charitable contribution deductions to in-state charities.

Shumlin gathered a group of nonprofit leaders on the steps of the State House Wednesday to decry any tinkering with charitable contributions, saying it would cause less giving by Vermonters.

The House GOP caucus voted unanimously to support sustaining a veto after discussing potential pitfalls.

“Is this going to raise his political capital?” asked one member.

“I believe that the governor is doing what our constituents have asked us to do. If that’s the case, why wouldn’t we support it?” Turner countered.

Rep. Kurt Wright of Burlington cautioned the caucus to remember that Shumlin’s original budget proposal raised significantly more in new revenue than the plans passed by both chambers.

“The only thing to keep in mind — the governor didn’t like this tax package, but remember what he started with?” Wright said. “How do you know he doesn’t make a deal with the other side. … He had a larger tax increase on the table to start with.”

In the end, it was an enthusiastic vote in favor of helping Shumlin.

“We all campaigned last year. We all heard the same thing. Everybody in this building heard the same thing. People want their taxes under control. Therefore, if the governor is coming that way I’m more than willing to help him and us do what people asked us to do,” said Rep. Francis “Topper” McFaun, R-Barre Town.

McAllister’s future unclear, but resignation expected soon

This story was updated at 5:55 p.m.

MONTPELIER — Lt. Gov. Phil Scott said Monday that embattled Sen. Norm McAllister, who faces multiple sex crime charges, intends to resign within 24 hours. The announcement came as Gov. Peter Shumlin and legislators leaders all called for him to step down Monday morning.

But in a bizarre twist, McAllister, R-Franklin, reached by phone at his home Monday afternoon, said he was not aware that anyone had reached out to Scott to promise his resignation. McAllister said he has made no determination about his future and planned to meet with his lawyer Tuesday. He declined to discuss the case any further, but said he has “had better days.”

“My lawyer has told me not to talk to anybody about any of this,” McAllister said. “I’ll be talking to my lawyer tomorrow.”

His lawyer, Brooks McArthur, did not return a message seeking comment.

Sen. Norm McAllister

Sen. Norm McAllister

Later in the day, Scott confirmed that Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, served as the messenger. Scott said Flory was in touch with McAllister throughout the weekend and relayed the message of his pending resignation. Flory spoke again with McAllister Monday afternoon and he is still expected to resign, according to Scott.

“I stand by what I was told and I still believe that I will receive his letter tomorrow morning,” he said.

Scott said he decided to reveal McAllister’s intention to resign after Shumlin and others called for him to step down.

“To be clear, I wouldn’t have announced it this morning without having it physically in my hand — until I heard the governor demanded his resignation and I thought, ‘Well, actually, he’s said he’s going to resign,’ and I thought it was important that I get that information out,” Scott said. “Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten involved but I just felt I had that and I should let people know because it was (McAllister’s) idea.”

McAllister, a second-term senator who previously served five terms in the House, pleaded not guilty Friday to charges of sexual assault and prohibited acts. Detailed court documents allege that McAllister forced women to have sex with him in exchange for rent and used sex as a punishment, among other things.

Seven Days reported over the weekend that one victim, who worked for the 63-year-old McAllister on his farm as well as an assistant or intern in Montpelier, alleged that she was possibly as young as 15 when he first assaulted her.

The charges and explicit details about the allegations released Friday in police affidavits have shaken many inside the State House as they work toward adjournment this week.

Scott, a Republican, told reporters McAllister promised early Monday morning to resign within 24 hours.

“I received word earlier this morning that within 24 hours I’ll be receiving his letter of resignation,” Scott told the Vermont Press Bureau.

Word came through a representative of McAllister’s, later revealed to be Flory at 7:30 a.m. “I have not spoken directly to him,” Scott said.

If a letter of resignation is received, Scott said he will hand it over to Senate Secretary John Bloomer who will then notify the governor and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor. The governor will eventually need to appoint someone to fill the remainder of McAllister’s term.

Scott said Monday that McAllister’s resignation is needed.

“I read the affidavit. The allegations are very serious, very troubling, to say the least. I feel that Sen. McAllister is making the right decision at this time. I think the people of Franklin County deserve a legislator that can devote themselves to their needs and I don’t think he can do that at this time,” the lieutenant governor said.

Earlier Monday, Shumlin, a Democrat called on McAllister to resign now that he is going through the judicial process.

“Given, the incredibly troubling allegations made against Sen. McAllister over the past several days, the right thing for him to do would be for him to resign from the Senate,” Shumlin told the Vermont Press Bureau in an interview. “Sen. McAllister will go through the legal process like any other accused individual, but for the good of Vermont he should not do so as a sitting senator.”

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Capitol Beat 5-11-15

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Barre-Montpelier Times Argus Editor Steve Pappas and Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami discuss the sexual assault case against Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin, the last week of the session and Bernie Sanders.

Vermont state senator pleads not guilty to sex charges

By Lisa Rathke
ST. ALBANS, Vt. (AP) — A Vermont state senator pleaded not guilty Friday to charges he tried to extract sexual favors in exchange for rent, used sex as a punishment and told a woman they could both earn extra money if she had sex with farm workers.

Prosecutors say the charges against Norman McAllister, 63, involve three victims.

Sen. Norm McAllister

Sen. Norm McAllister

McAllister, a successful Franklin County dairy farmer and one of nine Republicans in the 30-member Senate, is in his second two-year Senate term. He was arrested Thursday outside the statehouse.

He said nothing after the brief court appearance Friday morning but his lawyer, Brooks McArthur, urged people not to rush to judgment.

“We have a much different version of events,” McArthur said. McAllister was released on $20,000 bail.

Court records released after Friday’s arraignment contain a transcript of a recorded call in which McAllister and a woman who rents property from him talk about the extra money she could earn if she went to other farms to have sex with farm workers. In the call, McAllister responds “yes” when the woman says he would take half of what she earned from the sex to help pay her rent.

McAllister says: “That’s totally up to you. I mean, we were trying to figure out a way to get you money.”

One of his workers told investigators she was being taught how to drive a tractor and when the worker teaching her was injured, McAllister said her punishment for causing the injury was to let him perform a sexual act on her.

McAllister is charged with three counts each of sexual assault and prohibited acts. Police had initially recommended a human trafficking charge but prosecutors said the accusations didn’t match the spirit of that law.

The arrest sent ripples through the statehouse.

“I am shocked and saddened and if the allegations are true, these are very serious and disturbing,” said House Speaker Shap Smith, a Morristown Democrat. “Norm and I came in together in 2003. We’ve always had a good working relationship, and I’m just very saddened by the whole thing.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin wouldn’t say whether McAllister should resign.

“I’m not going to speculate on that,” he said. “I leave that decision to Sen. McAllister.”

“Obviously the allegations are extremely troubling, and we’ll have to see how it goes forward,” Shumlin said. “But I’m both concerned and troubled by it, as I’m sure most Vermonters are.”

Sen. Joe Benning, the Republican minority leader from Caledonia, said: “The initial allegations have everybody in the building sad. But I think everybody’s willing to withhold judgment until we have a more accurate picture.”

Benning, who is a criminal defense lawyer, said he was asked to join McAllister as he met with the police officers who arrested him at the statehouse.

“At that point, I was treating it as acting in the capacity of a defense attorney, and for that reason I can’t talk about any of the conversation that we had,” he said.

Capitol Beat with the Governor 5-8-15

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Gov. Peter Shumlin discusses  end-of-session issues that remain unresolved, the possibility that lawmakers will vote to remove the state’s philosophical vaccine exemption and the arrest of Franklin County Sen. Norm McAllister on sex charges.

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Sen. Norm McAllister arrested on sex charges

MONTPELIER — Franklin County Sen. Norm McAllister was arrested Thursday evening on sex charges, according to the Vermont State Police.

McAllister, a 63-year-old Republican from Highgate, has served in the Vermont Legislature since 2003, including four terms in the House. State police spokesman Scott Waterman issued a release late Thursday saying VSP detectives assigned to the Northwest Unit for Special Investigations arrested had McAllister and charged him with sexual assault, prohibited acts and human trafficking.

The Vermont State Police released this mug shot of Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin.

The Vermont State Police released this mug shot of Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin.

The charges stem from an investigation into complaints made against McAllister, according to police.

McAllister is being held at the Northwest Regional Correctional Center in St. Albans for lack of$20,000 bail. He will be arraigned in Franklin County District Court on Friday morning at 11 a.m.

Police said affidavits outlining the case against McAllister would be made public Friday following the arraignment.

McAllister’s arrest was first reported by the Burlington Free Press.

RFK Jr. and Vermont moms make their cases on vaccines

MONTPELIER — A prominent member of the country’s most storied political family testified against the elimination of the state’s philosophical exemption for vaccines Tuesday, accusing the Centers for Disease Control of corruption as he made his case to lawmakers.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the slain former U.S. senator, attorney general and presidential candidate, told members of the House Health Care Committee that he supports vaccination. But he said some vaccines that contain thimerosal, a mercury-containing compound in some vaccines, can cause harm in children.

The CDC, Kennedy said, which determines which vaccines children should receive, has not done a proper job of protecting them and has bowed to pressure from pharmaceutical companies. He said the trillion dollar industry spends twice as much on lobbying as any other industry.

“I’m pro-vaccine. I’ve had all six of my kids vaccinated,” Kennedy told the panel. “I think we ought to have state and federal policies that maximize vaccine coverage of the population but I think we have to begin the process by making sure the vaccines are safe, efficacious and that the regulatory agency which recommends vaccines … and monitors them has integrity and credibility and, unfortunately, that is not the case at the moment.”

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the Vermont State House on Tuesday, May 5, 2015.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the Vermont State House on Tuesday, May 5, 2015.

Kennedy, who received a raucous standing ovation from some people after completing his testimony, has been an environmental activist for three decades and has worked on the vaccine issue for the past 10 years. He spent most of his 15 minutes before the committee denouncing the CDC’s oversight of vaccines.

“CDC is a troubled agency. There’s been four separate, scathing federal studies about CDC,” he said. “All of them together and separately paint a picture of an agency that has become a cesspool of corruption.”

Kennedy accused the agency of manipulating studies to show that vaccines are more effective than they are, and that they do not cause harm.

“You could design an epidemiological study that shows that cigarettes don’t cause cancer or sex didn’t cause pregnancy. You just get rid of all the pregnant people or you get rid of all the people who have cancer and then you present your study,” he said. “That’s what CDC has been doing with these nine epidemiological studies that they point to.”

He also faulted Congress for creating a “shield” for pharmaceutical companies in 1989 “that suddenly made vaccines very profitable,” causing an increase in the number of recommended vaccines by the CDC.

“When I was a kid the vaccines were not profitable. They were not profit centers for the company. They were almost a civic duty. But now vaccines can add revenue of a billion dollars a year for some of these companies and there is tremendous pressure to add these vaccines to the schedule,” he said. “Most of the people who sit on those committees are vaccine industry insiders. Many of them, if not most of them, have direct financial stakes in the outcome of their decision to add the vaccine to the schedule.”

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks to reporters at the Vermont State House.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks to reporters at the Vermont State House.

“What’s very difficult is for the people of our country or the parents of Vermont to believe that those decisions are being made exclusively with the health of their children in mind,” Kennedy added.

Kennedy said the philosophical exemption in Vermont and other states is important because other protections and avenues of recourse no longer exist.

“The Congress has taken away jurisdiction in federal and state courts of any case against the vaccine industry so nobody can sue them. There’s no discovery, no depositions, there’s no class actions, there’s no documents,” he said. “All those things that protect us are gone. The only thing left that protects that child from that company, the only barrier standing, is the parent. And now we want tot make the parent away.”

Kennedy told reporters after his testimony that parents should vaccinate their children with mercury-free vaccines.

In Vermont, six vaccines are required for children to attend school, including ones for polio, Hepatitis B, measles and pertussis, according to Christine Finley, the Vermont Department of Health’s Immunization Program chief.

Currently, all 50 states allow medical exemptions. All but two states allow religious exemptions and 19 states have philosophical exemptions. Only Mississippi and West Virginia have neither religious nor philosophical exemptions.

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Vaccine debate heats up with a star witness

MONTPELIER — Action in the House on a bill that seeks to remove the state’s philosophical exemption for vaccines will be delayed until next week while a House Committee takes testimony on the issue.

Dylan Giambatista, chief of staff for Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith, said the House Health Care Committee will take testimony on Tuesday and Wednesday, and possibly Thursday. Currently, the committee is scheduled to hear from state health officials, medical professionals and advocates on both sides of the vaccine issue.

One of those advocates will be Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of former presidential candidate, U.S. attorney general and New York. Sen. Bobby Kennedy. Kennedy, who has testified around the country against forced vaccination, is scheduled to meet with Gov. Peter Shumlin Tuesday before providing testimony to the Health Care Committee, according to Kevin Ellis, a Montpelier-based lobbyist working to retain the state’s philosophical exemption.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Kennedy’s views and comments about vaccinations have been somewhat controversial. Last month he compared vaccination to a holocaust. And he has linked vaccinations with autism. The Journal of the American Medical Society has stated there is “no harmful association” between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism.

Shumlin spokesman Scott Coriell said Monday that Shumlin was asked to meet with Kennedy Tuesday and was told the governor “would probably have time in the afternoon to meet for a few minutes.” That meeting will not be open to the public, according to Coriell, and will not impact Shumlin’s views.

“The only voices that matter to the governor on this debate and any other are those of Vermonters,” he wrote in an email.

Ellis said he does not expect Kennedy’s recent comment to detract from his testimony.

“He’s been right on everything that matters,” Ellis said. “I think he apologized. We all make mistakes in the passion of the moment. He’s an important voice in the debate and it’s a debate that we need to have.”

Advocates in favor of removing the state’s philosophical exemption are also slated to be at the State House Tuesday. A group of Vermont mothers and grandmothers are holding a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

Passionate debate over the issue of vaccine exemptions was reignited earlier this year when Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, introduced a bill to remove the right of parents to decline vaccinations for their children for philosophical reasons. It would also prevent students who are not vaccinated from attending school. A medical exemption and a religious exemption would remain.

That bill did not move, but Mullin and others were able to attach legislative language to another bill dealing with a disease registry. The bill, which included removing the philosophical exemption, passed the Senate on an 18 to 11 vote.

Sen. Kevin Mullin

Sen. Kevin Mullin

The bill as amended by the Senate has since languished in the House for nearly two weeks. The House postponed action on it until May 6, but that will now be pushed back further, Giambatista said, to what is expected to be the final week of this legislative session.

“I don’t think it’s going to be this week. It would be next week at the earliest, so it’s going to be down to the wire on the clock,” he said. “We’re trying to do our due diligence and have our opportunity for discussion.”

The Senate passed a similar repeal of the philosophical exemption in 2012, only to see it squashed by the House. Smith, whose wife is a physician, supports repealing the exemption, but it remains unclear if there is enough support in the House to advance it.

“He shares that with both sides on the issue. He is very clear on this issue,” Giambatista said. “The conversation is going to be ongoing.”

The speaker has met with both proponents and opponents of removing the exemption. Both sides will have a chance to testify before the House Health Care Committee this week.

“In terms of support levels, I don’t know. It’s a difficult issue to call because both sides are well-organized,” Giambatista.

Shumlin has been a supporter of keeping the exemption in place, but has indicated a willingness in recent weeks to entertain the debate. Coriell said Monday that Shumlin wants to give the law he signed in 2012 time to work.

That law requires parents or guardians to sign a form from the Heath Department acknowledging they have “reviewed and understands evidence-based educational material provided by the department of health regarding immunizations, including information about the risks of adverse reactions to immunization.”

The law also allows students to remain in school without required vaccines for up to six months if they are in the process of receiving them.

“The governor supports the law he signed two years ago and thinks we should give it a chance to work. If the Legislature wants to debate this issue further, he is open to that debate,” Coriell said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com