Category Archives: Governor

Small biz direct enrollment to last through 2015 open enrollment

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration told lawmakers Tuesday that small businesses will have the option to continue directly enrolling in health care insurance plans during the next open enrollment period slated for this fall.

Director of Health Care Reform Robin Lunge delivered the update to the Senate Finance Committee early Tuesday afternoon. Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access, delivered the same message later to the House Health Care Committee.

“The good news that I have is that the feds have approved the ability for us to continue with direct enrollment moving forward through the 2015 open enrollment period for 2016 plans and our intention is to allow this as an additional option,” Lunge said.

Direct enrollment with the state’s two insurance carriers was a contingency plan offered by Gov. Peter Shumlin when the state’s federally mandated online insurance marketplace, Vermont Health Connect, failed to function properly at launch last October. Small businesses were able to bypass the exchange and deal directly with insurers.

Employees of small businesses with 50 or fewer employees are required by state statute to obtain health insurance through Vermont Health Connect. But the website still does not allow for online enrollment. Administration officials say they expect it to be working when the 2015 open enrollment period begins in October.

Larson said the direct enrollment option is in no way an indication that the exchange website will still not be fully functional by October. Rather, it provides Vermonters with additional ways to enroll in qualified health insurance plans, he said.

However, direct enrollment with insurance carriers provides a limited choice of insurance plans. Individual using the website can choose from 18 plans between the two carriers. Small business employees can only choose from four plans.

Larson said the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare, which has approved the state’s request to continue direct enrollment, “is mindful of employee choice.” Larson said conversations with insurers are taking place to try and expand options.

“They are very interested in making sure that employees have the greatest ability to have choice in their plans as possible. That will be one of the conversations that we have, is how to do direct enrollment so employees continue to have access to as many plans as possible through their employer.”

House Health Care Committee Chairman Rep. Michael Fisher, following Larson’s appearance, said he is happy the direct enrollment option will be preserved for the next enrollment period.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that this piece of IT structure or that piece will be ready in time, and so I don’t have any confidence that anything is going to work until I see it working,” he said. “I think Vermonters are comfortable going through the carriers directly and I’m pleased that the administration moved to a place that is supporting that. So, I think that’s a good thing.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Online payments go live on state exchange

MONTPELIER — The state’s online health insurance marketplace is now accepting payment online for premiums, the Shumlin administration announced Monday.

Individual Vermonters enrolling in insurance plans on Vermont Health Connect, the online marketplace mandated under the federal Affordable Care Act, can now pay for monthly premiums online, according to the Department of Vermont Health Access. The site underwent an upgrade over the weekend, officials said.

Small businesses will continue to enroll directly through the state’s two insurers — Blue Cross Blue Shield and MVP Health Care.

The payment system will now allow Vermonters to pay premiums with a debit card, credit card or direct deposit from a bank account in addition to paper checks.

“This is great news for all Vermonters using VHC to enroll in health plans. Paying online provides convenience for Vermonters, and we’re pleased this functionality is now up and running. Our focus over the next month is to continue to enroll Vermonters through VHC,” DVHA Commissioner Mark Larson said in a statement.

Administration officials said additional system upgrades over the weekend will allow VHC staff to better process applications and provide a better overall experience for users.

The addition of online payments comes months after the site launched last Oct. 1. At launch, the site experienced significant technological failures that prevented most users from selecting plans. Small businesses can still not enroll on the site and must do so directly through insurers.

GOP leaders seek federal investigation into exchange

MONTPELIER — Republican leaders in the Legislature are seeking a federal investigation into Vermont Health Connect based on an anonymous tip that a state contractor duped state officials last year.

House Minority Leader Don Turner of Milton and Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning of Caledonia County sent a letter Wednesday to Tristram Coffin, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont, requesting the investigation. The request is based on “whistleblower allegations alleging a fraudulent software demonstration on July 26, 2013 by CGI Technologies & Solutions.”

Newsweek published an article earlier this month in which an anonymous source said a demonstration by CGI last July designed to show connectivity with the state’s online insurance marketplace with a federal data hub was faked.

The exchange site, for which CGI has an $84 million contract to build, is still not fully functional, the GOP leaders wrote in their letter.

“We believe the unexplained and extensive delay, coupled with evidence suggesting the company in charge of designing the system may have duped Vermont officials into incorrectly thinking that the software system was working and on schedule, constitutes sufficient legal and factual predicate to begin a federal investigation,” they wrote. “If true, such a fraud prevented state officials from performing proper contractual oversight, prevented corrective measures, and helped CGI retain its multi-million dollar contract with the state.”

Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access, has maintained that the July demonstration did feature a live connection with the federal data hub.

Linda F. Odorisio, vice president of communications for CGI, said in an emailed statement Wednesday evening that the demonstration did connect the state site to the federal hub.

“CGI confirms that the demonstration conducted on July 26, 2013 included a live interface to the Federal Data Services Hub, with the real time sending and receiving of data,” she wrote.

House approves campaign finance measure

MONTPELIER — The Housed passed a campaign finance reform bill Thursday on a bipartisan vote following a conference committee with Senate negotiators.

The legislation sailed through the House on a 124 to 15 roll call vote, but some members are disappointed in the final version of the legislation. The plan will raise some contribution limits.

House and Senate negotiators met out of session over the last several months after failing to reach agreement before the end of the 2013 legislative session. They  signed off on a compromise plan Tuesday, the first day of the 2014 legislative session.

The agreement will allow individuals, corporations and PACs  to contribute twice as much money — from $2,000 to $4,000 — directly to statewide candidates and PACs.

Meanwhile, political parties can now raise $10,000 directly from those same groups, up from $2,000, and up to $60,000 from their national parties.

Candidates for the Legislature will see a decrease in the contributions they can currently receive. Contributions to House candidates will capped at $1,000, while contributions to Senate candidates will be reduced to $1,500.

Political parties will be able to funnel unlimited amounts of money to candidates, however.

Independent and Progressive candidates said that provides an unfair advantage to Democrats and Republicans who can receive unlimited funding from their respective parties.

Some House members addressed the chamber to explain their votes, saying they voted in favor of the bill because it is time for the state to have limits in place.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, a Democrat from Arlington, said she voted against the bill because the contribution limits are too high and more disclosure should be required closer to elections. The bill is “not enough to even be called campaign finance reform,” she said.

The Senate will consider the compromise bill next week.

Vermont’s state of the state address makes the New York Times

In the nightly news budget they send out the New York Times had the Vermont State of the State address listed as one story in consideration for the front page for today's paper. Instead of A1, Gov. Shumlin's single-minded focus on addiction landed on A12, but still, a nice write up from Katharine Q. Seelye from the State House yesterday:

In Annual Speech, Vermont Governor Shifts Focus to Drug Abuse

MONTPELIER, Vt. – In a sign of how drastic the epidemic of drug addiction here has become, Gov. Peter Shumlin on Wednesday devoted his entire State of the State Message to what he said was a “full-blown heroin crisis” gripping Vermont.

 

Larson testimony was contrary to report filed with federal officials

MONTPELIER — Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson unequivocally denied any security breaches within Vermont Health Connect to lawmakers earlier this month, information that was contrary to what he apparently knew at the time of his testimony before the House Health Care Committee.

Larson penned a letter of apology over the discrepancy to the committee’s chairman on Sunday, which was made public by the Shumlin administration on Monday.

Larson was peppered with questions by Republican Rep. Mary Morrissey during a Nov. 5 hearing about Vermont Health Connect, the state’s version of the online health insurance marketplaces required under the federal Affordable Care Act. Morrissey was inquiring about security concerns with the website.

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The Bennington Republican said she had heard of security breaches and asked Larson if any users’ personal information had been accessed in an unauthorized way.

Larson responded unequivocally that no security breaches had occurred.

“We have no situations where somebody’s private information has been breached,” he said. “We have looked into and we have found no situation where somebody’s private information has been breached.”

Seemingly unconvinced, Morrissey tried again: “There has been none?” she
asked.

“Yes. We have done the appropriate investigation of each case. We’ve identified … we have investigated each one. We have followed our appropriate privacy and security procedures,” Larson responded.

In his apology letter, Larson acknowledged in his response to those questions his failure to include information about one particular case, first reported on Friday by the Associated Press.

“During the November 5th committee hearing, I was asked about whether any security failures had occurred in Vermont Health Connect. I responded that no situation had occurred where somebody’s private information had been breached. I then attempted to clarify that we had investigated all reports and followed appropriate procedures. I should have instead also included in my response the facts of this single incident, and am sorry that my statements to the committee did not do so,” Larson wrote.

The AP reported Friday that Larson’s department knew of a security breach about three weeks before his testimony to the House Health Care Committee. His office had notified the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services about an incident in which the social security number of one person using Vermont Health Connect was inadvertently supplied to another user on the system.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, who spoke with reporters Monday at an unrelated event, said the breach was the result of two users with similar user names.

“One of them got the other one’s information and alerted us to that fact. It was not an external security breach where people can go in and see other people’s information,” Shumlin said.

The governor said he became aware of Larson’s testimony “in the last couple of days by reading about it in the press.” Despite Larson’s “lapse in judgment,” Shumlin said the commissioner maintains his full support.

“I have absolute confidence in Commissioner Larson. He’s under tremendous pressure. They all are at Vermont Health Connect. He’s doing an extraordinary job there, working long hours, seven days a week. They’ll continue to get that website right and get good results,” Shumlin said.

The governor said he did not at any point consider asking Larson to resign his post.

“It’s as simple as this: We all make mistakes. None of us are immune to making mistakes. Commissioner Larson has acknowledged he made a mistake. He viewed the question, differently than, I think, objectively, many of us would have. I take Mark at his word that he made a mistake. We’re all capable of them. I make them, too. We go forward from here,” Shumlin said.

Read tomorrow’s editions of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald for full coverage of this story by Dave Gram, the Associated Press reporter who broke news of the security breach last Friday.

DVHA commissioner apologizes for vague answer on exchange security breach

MONTPELIER — A state official overseeing the state’s health care exchange apologized to lawmakers Monday for withholding information about a single security breach of personal information when questioned during a House Health Care Committee hearing earlier this month.

Department of Vermont Health Access Mark Larson acknowledged in a letter to the committee dated Sunday that a security breach did occur in November and he did not provide details when questioned about security concerns by Republican Rep. Mary Morrissey of Bennington.

“During the November 5th committee hearing, I was asked about whether any security failures had occurred in Vermont Health Connect. I responded that no situation had occurred where somebody’s private information had been breached. I then attempted to clarify that we had investigated all reports and followed appropriate procedures. I should have instead also included in my response the facts of this single incident, and am sorry that my statements to the committee did not do so,” Larson wrote. Continue reading

Report finds single payer costs may be higher than thought

####_loc_WebHealthMONTPELIER — An independent report delivered to lawmakers Thursday found that the savings estimated by the Shumlin administration in a proposed single payer health care plan may not be as high as projected.

Avalere Health LLC, commissioned by Vermont Partners for Health Care Reform, studied a previous report prepared for Gov. Peter Shumlin’s proposed universal health care system that he hopes will be implemented in 2017. The analysis presented by Avalere Thursday found three main areas of concern.

The Shumlin administration, based on its own study conducted by the University of Massachusetts, found that it would cost about $1.6 billion to finance Shumlin’s plan. The Avalere report believes that cost could be as high as $2.2 billion.

Administration officials countered Thursday by arguing that it still provides significant savings from the more than $3 billion spent annually on health care now outside of federal programs.

The report also noted that payments to providers are likely to drop, creating a disincentive for doctors to practice in Vermont.

Additionally, the administration may be projecting too rosy a scenario in terms of administrative cost saves, according the the Avalere report. The administration is projecting a savings based on a projected 12 percent administrative cost. The report states that the state’s largest insurance carrier, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont, is already delivering insurance below the administration’s projected 7 percent under the proposed health care plan.

Vermont Partners for Health Care Reform includes Fletcher Allen Health Care, the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, the Vermont Medical Society, the Vermont Business Roundtable, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, the Vermont Assembly of Home Health and Hospice Agencies and Blue Cross.

A full story will appear in Friday’s Herald and Times Argus.

Democratic PAC settles with state

MONTPELIER — A Democratic PAC must may a $30,000 penalty for violating the state’s campaign finance law during the 2010 election.

Green Mountain Future, a political action committee created by the Democratic Governors Association has settled with the state for the $30,000 penalty, Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell announced Wednesday.

The settlement, which has been approved by the Vermont Superior Court, requires GMF to pay the state a civil penalty of $20,000 for failing to include its address on its website or in television ads that ran during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. GMF must also pay a $10,000 penalty the court had previously imposed for not registering as a PAC and filing campaign finance reports.

“Voters are legally entitled to know who is seeking to influence them,” Sorrell said a statement. “PACs need to obey the laws. They cannot hide. They must disclose their identity, including their address, their donors, and their expenditures, to the extent required by law.”

GMF spent more than $500,000 during the 2010 campaign on political ads. Television ads attacking Republican candidate Brian Dubie, the state’s former lieutenant governor, aired thousands of times but did not include complete identifying information. The public had no way of knowing who was behind the ads because GMF did not file required reports, Sorrell said.

The Vermont Superior Court determined that GMF violated Vermont’s campaign finance laws in Dec. 2011 but did not impose a financial penalty for its failure to fully identify itself in ads.

The Vermont Supreme Court then ruled in September that the lower court erred in not imposing a penalty. In its decision the Vermont Supreme Court said “the difficulty of calculating a penalty [does not] mean that no penalty can be awarded.”

The case returned to the trial court for consideration of an appropriate penalty. The settlement announced Wednesday closes out the only remaining issue in the enforcement action, Sorrell said.

Administration reveals exchange delay plan

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration released details Friday on how it plans to handle short-term insurance policies resulting from a three-month delay in the state-level mandate for insurance coverage on Vermont Health Connect.

Both individuals and small businesses can now extend current plans up to three months to March 31 while maintaining current 2013 rates. Individuals who have received notification from their insurance carrier that a current policy will be canceled can extend the plan.

Deductibles for current plans will reset on Jan. 1 as they typically would for a new plan year. Accepting a plan extension into 2014 is essentially a short plan year, administration officials said.

However, any deductible amounts and out-of-pocket expenses paid during the short extension period will be applied to a new 2014 exchange plan as long as the insurance carrier remains the same, officials said.

Additional changes have added the option for small businesses to enroll in exchange plans directly through MVP or Blue Cross. Administration officials said Friday that small businesses will soon receive a notice from their insurance carrier with information about the exchange plan closest to their current plan. Businesses choosing to enroll in that plan will be automatically rolled into it and billed.

Businesses that want to select a different plan, enroll themselves on the exchange or switch insurance carriers will have to contact their current carrier by Nov. 25.

To avoid any lapse in coverage, small businesses must select a “plan menu” for employees by Feb. 1, and employees will need to select a plan by Feb. 28 for April 1 coverage.

Meanwhile, Vermonters on Vermont Health Access Plan or Catamount who do not qualify for Medicaid in 2014 will have their plans automatically extended to March 31. The administration has previously said they would take steps to reach out to those Vermonters and assist them on enrolling in an exchange plan before the end of the year.

A fact sheet is available here.

A full story will appear in Saturday’s editions of the Herald and Times Argus.

VHC

Despite early hiccups, administration says launch of Vermont Health Connect is a success

MONTPELIER – State officials are hailing Tuesday’s launch of the state’s online health insurance marketplace as a success, but opponents were quick to denounce the new system as the online portal immediately experienced technical issues.

Tuesday marked the official launch of Vermont Health Connect, the state’s version of the online health insurance exchanges required under the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, widely referred to as Obamacare.

Vermont Department of Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson touted the benefits the exchange will provide Vermonters.

“I am proud of our staff for their hard work to date, and I am confident that commitment will continue as Vermonters access the marketplace to make smart health coverage decisions over the course of the six month open-enrollment period,” Larson said in a statement. “Today marks a crucial first step in Vermont’s move to provide quality coverage, help small businesses and Vermonters afford insurance, and control the staggering increases in health care costs.” Continue reading

Shumlin appoints Hoyt to fill Cheney seat

Gov. Peter Shumlin has appointed Kathy Hoyt of Norwich to the House seat formerly held by Rep. Margaret Cheney, D-Norwich, who was named earlier this week to a post on the state Public Service Board.
Hoyt is no newcomer to state government.
She previously served as commissioner of the state Department of Employment and Training, planning director for the Vermont Agency of Human Services, Gov. Madeleine Kunin’s and Gov. Howard Dean’s chief of staff, and secretary of the Agency of Administration.
According to the governor’s office, Hoyt has most recently been caring for her husband, former Tax Commissioner Norrie Hoyt, who died in early August. Norrie Hoyt held the same House seat for nine years, ending in 1983.
Under Vermont statute, the governor has the option of requesting nominees and choosing among them, or making a direct appointment. On previous vacancies, Shumlin has requested submissions from the parties, a process he is currently using to fill a vacancy in the Randolph House district.
However, the governor’s office said in a press release, given Hoyt’s experience and long connection to Norwich and her district, he chose to make a direct appointment.

Rep. Margaret Cheney named to seat on Public Service Board

Rep. Margaret Cheney, a Democratic legislator from Norwich and the wife of Congressman Peter Welch will serve as the next member of the Public Service Board.

Gov. Peter Shumlin this afternoon announced the appointment of Rep. Margaret Cheney to the three-person panel responsible for vetting utility rates, and approving or denying infrastructure projects related to issues including energy, telecommunications, cable television and water service.

Cheney, a four-term legislator who serves as vice-chairwoman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, will resign her elected post and assume her seat on the board by Oct. 1.

“Margaret brings a critical combination of expertise in policy and public engagement. Her track record as a former journalist, school board chair, teacher, legislator, and vice-chair of a key energy committee is impressive,” Shumlin said in a written statement announcing her appointment. “Her commitment to civic involvement and her familiarity with Vermont energy policy make her a perfect addition to the Board. She also has a keen sense of fairness and is a pleasure to work with. I am very glad that she has agreed to join the Board and help guide Vermont’s energy and telecommunications future.”

 

Cheney said her experience in the Legislature has helped her to understand the real-world impacts of decisions made by the PSB.

“The Public Service Board plays a critical role in matters of great importance to Vermonters – the cost of electricity, the provision of telecommunication service, and the siting of energy projects, among others,” Cheney in a statement. “As a legislator, I have heard how strongly-felt many of these issues are to Vermonters, and I know how important it is for the Public Service Board to safeguard the public good. I am humbled to be joining the Board and I am honored to take on this responsibility.”

Cheney replaces the outgoing David Coen, who was first appointed to the board by Gov. Howard Dean in 1995, and reappointed by Govs. Dean and Jim Douglas. Coen, by law, will continue working on existing cases until they are resolved.

According to an administration release, Cheney was the managing editor of The Washingtonian magazine in Washington, D.C., for 11 years. More recently, according to the release, she served as a faculty member at Sharon Academy, where she taught courses related to energy and the environment, as well as Spanish. She was a member of the Norwich School Board from 1998 to 2007, according to the release, and a graduate of Harvard University.

 

Cheney’s a salary will be $86,000, and her six-year term will expire in 2019.

Legalize it? Shumlin welcomes new cannabis debate in Vermont

In the wake of a federal memorandum that appears to condone the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, Gov. Peter Shumlin said he’s “open to further discussion” about instituting similar cannabis laws here.

The Department of Justice issued a long-awaited directive last week that outlines a hands-off approach for dealing with producers and sellers of marijuana in states that have legalized the plant, so long as those states have put in place “a strong and effective state regulatory system.”

Shumlin, a longtime proponent of cannabis reform, signed into law earlier this year the decriminalization legislation he spent years pushing through the Statehouse. Just two months after that law took effect, the second-term Democrat said he’s ready to talk about going further.

“I applaud the Department of Justice for being more clear about how they’re going to enforce legislative issues of small amounts of marijuana,” Shumlin said Tuesday. “And I am open to a further discussion in Vermont about what makes the most sense for this state.”

Shumlin hasn’t sought to bring the issue to the fore, and his comments about marijuana Tuesday came in response to questions from reporters on hand for a press conference on an unrelated issue.

But the politically astute governor also hasn’t been shy about talking about the issue, and, as Seven Days reported last month, Shumlin is scheduled to participate in a fundraising conference call later this month with the Marijuana Policy Project, a national advocacy outfit pushing for legalization. The subject of the call: “to discuss our strategy for legalizing marijuana nationwide over the next four years.”

During the debate over decriminalization, Shumlin said legalization would fly too aggressively in the face of federal statutes that now classify marijuana as Schedule I narcotic with no medicinal value. In light of the new DOJ stance, however, Shumlin said he’s ready to talk legalization.

After resignation, Rader Wallack returns to Vermont health care

Anya Rader Wallack

Anya Rader Wallack

MONTPELIER — She may have resigned her high-profile post as chairwoman of the Green Mountain Care Board, but Anya Rader Wallack’s role in health care reform in Vermont is far from over.

Rader Wallack, who departed her post less than two weeks ago, is on the verge of inking a $100,000 contract with the state to oversee the use of a $45 million federal grant. In her work on the “State Innovation Model” grant, Rader Wallack will seek to propel many of the same objectives pushed by the Green Mountain Care Board.

Her expertise on matters including alternative care models and payment reform is among the reasons cited by a top administration official in his request to award Rader Wallack a no-bid contract.

In an Aug. 7 memo to Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding, Deputy Administration Secretary Michael Clasen made the case for the no-bid process.

“Anya is best suited to provide the leadership and policy expertise needed to implement Vermont’s payment and delivery system reform initiatives funded through the SIM Testing Grant,” Clasen wrote. Continue reading