Category Archives: News

State warned in June that exchange faced disconnection

MONTPELIER — State officials knew in early June that the state’s online health insurance marketplace faced possible disconnection from the federal data hub because of ongoing security shortcomings, according to documents obtained through a public records request.

Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson received a letter, dated June 10, from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services explaining that Vermont Health Connect could be disconnected from the federal data hub by Sept. 8 if security shortcomings were not resolved.

State officials eventually took the exchange site offline on the evening of Sept. 15, but did so voluntarily, according to Lawrence Miller, a special advisor to Gov. Peter Shumlin and the state’s chief of health care reform.

According to CMS’ letter, the Vermont exchange fared poorly in two quarterly reviews, which prompted the warning and threat of disconnection.

“[B]ased upon CMS’ evaluation of your quarterly (plan of action and milestones) for the past two reporting periods, ending January 31, 2014 and March 31, 2014, we have identified a significant number of open high security findings and/or open moderate findings that potentially could present risk to the security of the Hub,” the letter states.

Lawrence Miller

Lawrence Miller

The letter acknowledged progress the state was making in addressing security threats, but set a deadline of Sept. 8 to complete that work. It noted, however, that the state “will be disconnected from the Hub and required to submit new security documentation to regain the (Authority to Connect)” if improvements were not completed.

“CMS continues to monitor your mitigation strategies and corrective action plans related to your system’s connection to the Hub, and thus believes that the connection to the Hub continues to be secure. As a result, CMS is not immediately disconnecting your state from the Hub, but provides notice pursuant to Section 18 of the Master Interconnection Security Agreement between the parties dated September 20, 20013, that the open high and/or moderate security findings must be addressed … or your state’s (authority to connect) will be terminated,” the letter states.

Miller said Thursday that he could not discuss the threats identified by CMS, but said they are “potential weaknesses.”

“It’s not necessarily identified weaknesses. It’s potential weaknesses,” he said.

According to Miller, the state’s chief information security officer had regular communication with CMS over the next several months. It initially appeared that the state would be granted additional time to complete security improvements, Miller said.

In an email dated Sept. 3 and sent to Larson, Kirk Grothe in CMS’s Office of Information Services, said he believed the state would need until Nov. 3 to complete the required security improvements. However, he also noted that he “was not able to commit to the extended timeline.”VHC

Miller said it initially appeared based on conversations with CMS that the state would be granted additional time. However, it became clear over the next two weeks after Grothe’s email that more time would not be granted. Miller said he and other officials then decided to take Vermont Health Connect offline voluntarily because they knew the deadline would not be met and an extension would not be granted.

“They clearly had an elevated anxiety level from earlier in the year. If nothing had changed, every indication we were getting from our contacts was, ‘Oh yeah, if it takes you a couple more weeks, given the fact that you’re switching over from CGI, you’re working on it, it should be fine.’ And then it wasn’t,” Miller said. “It was a pretty easy decision to say, ‘We don’t have to talk anymore. We’ve got it. We’re going to do this.’”

Miller said officials decided it would be “just silly” to try and accelerate the process of boosting security to meet the Sept. 8 deadline. Officials were also trying to improve other functions on the site while transitioning from original contractor CGI to its new contractor Optum.

“We had the security stuff and we had the performance improvements and the website revisions and were in the middle of the transition from CGI to Optum,” he said. “We were looking at whether we could finish within the time period that we were talking about. We said, ‘No, this isn’t going to happen.’”

Despite learning in June of the security issues, state officials did not disclose the problem until Sept. 16, when Miller, Larson and Shumlin held a news conference to announce that the site was taken offline the previous evening. Miller said he and other state officials were told by CMS that disclosing the potential security threats could encourage hackers to attack the site.

“I have no discomfort with the fact that we did not put that out there based on our conversations with CMS on how to handle these things. You don’t talk about this stuff, period,” he said.

Miller said he has “every reason to believe” the site will be back up before the open enrollment period begins on Nov. 15. The Nov. 3 target identified by CMS is no longer valid, he said, because the work has been combined with other site upgrades.

“That had been what the technical assistance folks at CMS concluded was a reasonable date,” he said.

Larson was dismissed from oversight of Vermont Health Connect last month by Acting Agency of Human Services Secretary Harry Chen. Miller is now responsible for the site’s operations.

 

Read the letter from CMS to former Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson.

 

Read emails between state officials and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services obtained through a pubic records request concerned the state’s decision to take Vermont Health Connect offline.

 

Scott tops $200,000 in contributions

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott reported raising $38,000 during the latest campaign finance reporting period. That brings his total contributions for the campaign to $202,000. He has spent about $150,000 so far.

Read the report below:

Shumlin adds another $100k, spends big on TV ads

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin’s Oct. 1 campaign finance report shows he raised more than $100,000 in the past few weeks. Most of his campaign contributions came from larger donors. The report also shows that Shumlin has spent more than $200,000 on television advertisements.

Read the report below:

DCF report seeks staff and training

MONTPELIER — A report released Wednesday based on an internal review of the Department for Children and Families does not recommend restructuring the agency, but does seek immediate boosts to staffing, additional staff training and better collaboration between the department and its partners.

Acting Agency of Human Services Secretary Harry Chen and DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz presented the plan to Gov. Peter Shumlin Wednesday. Shumlin had requested an internal review in May following the deaths of two toddlers under the department’s supervision.

Two-year-old Dezirae Sheldon of Poultney died in February and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw of Winooski died in April. Both deaths were ruled homicides and murder charges were filed.

Officials said Wednesday “that DCF should strengthen its approach to integrated services, rather than engage in a major reorganization aimed at splitting up the department.”

The report also calls for increased staffing to improve operations and programs, improved training for staff, continued review of department policies and practices, better collaboration with other state agencies and partners and better transparency and communication internally as well as with the Legislature and public.

Additionally, the department should better align management resources “to enable the DCF Commissioner to focus more time on the core mission of the department: protecting vulnerable children and families.”

Chen and Katz have scheduled a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

The review began under former Secretary Doug Racine, who was fired by Shumlin, and former DCF Commissioner David Yacovone. Input for the report was sought from the public, law enforcement, families, legislators, child and family advocates, agency staff and stakeholder groups.

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

 

Spaulding to leave Shumlin administration

MONTPELIER — Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding was announced Wednesday as the next chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges and will be stepping down from his position in the Shumlin administration.

Spaulding will take over as chancellor in January. It was not immediately known when he planned to step away from his administration position.

Spaulding, 61, a former state treasurer and state senator from Washington County, has served as Gov. Peter Shumlin’s top administration official since Shumlin took office in January 2011. Shumlin issued a statement Wednesday, calling Spaulding “the ideal person to take the helm of the Vermont State Colleges.”

Jeb Spaulding

Jeb Spaulding

“Jeb has been a good friend since our first days working together in the Legislature 24 years ago. As my Administration Secretary, he has been a rock-solid partner, creating a balanced budget year after year, and preserving Vermont’s exceptional fiscal management and bond rating,” Shumlin said in his statement. “He has also been a close personal advisor, a role I know he will continue to play. I look forward to continuing to work closely with Jeb when he takes on his new role as Chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges next January.”

During his time in the Senate, from 1985 to 2001, Spaulding chaired the Appropriations Committee, the Education Committee, the Joint Fiscal Committee and the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.

He was elected state treasurer in 2002 and served in that office until he became administration secretary under Shumlin.

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

Feliciano releases tax return

Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Dan Feliciano released his 2012 and 2013 tax returns Tuesday, showing income of $239,796 in 2013 and $174,773 in 2012. He filed jointly with his wife, Carol. Feliciano’s occupation is listed as consultant, while his wife’s is listed as “Greatest Mother.”

The couple paid $23,741 in federal taxes in 2012 and $35,424 in 2013.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, who is seeking a third two-year term, has released his 2013 tax return, showing $721,000 in income. He also released a list of his assets, which total more than $10 million. Shumlin did not release his 2012 return and indicated to reporters at an unrelated news conference Tuesday that he did not intend to release it.

Republican candidate Scott Milne said he plans to release his tax information on Oct. 15.

 

 

Shumlin releases tax return, assets

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s campaign has released his 2013 tax return and a list of his assets. According to the return, Shumlin earned about $721,000 in 2013, including $128,000 from the state. He made $167,000 from capital gains and about $350,000 from real estate.

According to the campaign, Shumlin has more than $10 million in assets. He owns 16 properties valued at a combined $3,867,702. He owns six vehicles and various farm equipment valued at $128,000. His various investments are valued at $6,487,382.

 

 

 

Yacovone leaving post at DCF

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin announced Wednesday afternoon that Department for Children and Families Commissioner David Yacovone is leaving his position in the embattled department for a job in the private sector.

Yacovone made the decision to leave state service and was not asked to step down. Still, the move comes as DCF deals with the fallout of several crises and faces a potential reorganization following a comprehensive review ordered by Shumlin in May.

The department faced scathing criticism following the deaths earlier this year of two children supervised by the department. Two-year-old Dezirae Sheldon of Poultney died in February and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw of Winooski died in April. Both deaths were ruled homicides.

David Yacovone

David Yacovone

Calls for Yacovone’s ouster have persisted since those tragedies. Former Agency of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine was fired by Shumlin earlier this month.

Various investigations into the toddlers’ deaths are ongoing, and a special legislative panel has worked all summer to determine what, if any, legislation is needed to address policies and procedures within the department.

Additionally, a lawsuit was filed last week against the state department alleging that social workers did not act on the reported abuse and neglect of two children in Ludlow over a four year period.

Yacovone, a former member of the Vermont House, was appointed DCF commissioner in January 2011, when Shumlin took office. He has worked in the health and human services field since 1976, beginning as a vocational counselor for economically disadvantaged Vermonters.

Yacovone also worked as a nursing home administrator for 16 years and at the Agency of Human Services for 12 years, including stints as chief operating officer, commissioner of the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living and and director of field services in the Morrisville district office.

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

Poll: Shumlin leads Milne by double digits

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin is leading Republican challenger Scott Milne 48 percent to 36 percent, according to a poll released Friday by Rasmussen Reports.

According to Rasmussen, the survey of 700 likely voters in Vermont was conducted Aug. 28 to Aug. 29 by. The margin of sampling error is +/- 4 percentage points with a 95 percent level of confidence. Field work was conducted by Pulse Opinion Research, LLC.

The poll did not include Libertarian candidate Dan Feliciano. Although Milne easily secured the GOP nomination in Tuesday’s primary, Feliciano was able to secure double digit support thanks to an aggressive write-in campaign. He will appear on the general election ballot as the Libertarian nominee.

Optum report critical of state, CGI

Vermont’s top health care reform officials are planning a roundtable meeting with reporters this morning to discuss a report by Optum that is critical of both the state and CGI.

Included in the report:

Optum has concluded, based review of the VHC’s Program Management documentation and interviews with both SOV and contractor staff, that the project’s Program Management structure and processes contributed to SOV’s lack of project ownership and CGI’s lack of accountability. Additionally, project
management processes within the program, do not align with industry best practices and are insufficient or ineffective.

As a result CGI has not met its commitments in the contract and the project has not met the expectations of the SOV. The project team’s ability to deliver the remaining contractual requirements is a ‘High’ risk, and as such, immediate corrective action is required.

 

Read the report below:

VSEA announces new legislative director

MONTPELIER — The Vermont State Employees’ Association announced a new legislative director Monday, filling a vacancy created when former Legislative Director Steve Howard was promoted to executive director of the union.

Ben Palkowski, who was working as an attorney in Massachusetts before being tapped for the VSEA position, previously served as the Vermont Democratic House Campaign’s executive director from 2007 to 2011. He also worked in 2006 as a field coordinator for Democratic Rep. Peter Welch’s campaign.

“Ben knows Vermont politics and our state election and legislative processes very well, which is why VSEA is pleased to be adding his expertise to our legislative team,” VSEA President Shelley Martin said in a statement. “I have no doubt VSEA members are going to be well served at the State House by both Ben and our Legislative Specialist Anne Accettella.”

“I am thrilled to be back in Vermont, and I am really looking forward to working alongside and advocating on behalf VSEA members,” Palkowski said in a statement.

Prior to joining the VSEA, Palkowski practiced student loan and consumer protection law in Boston and operated a consulting firm.

Hoffer will audit Vermont Health Connect

MONTPELIER — State Auditor Doug Hoffer announced Monday that his office is planning to audit the state’s online health insurance marketplace as the Shumlin administration and its new lead contractor look to fix ongoing technical issues.

Hoffer informed interim Agency of Human Services Secretary Harry Chen in a letter dated Aug. 21 of the pending audit.

Vermont Health Connect, the insurance exchange mandated under the federal Affordable Care Act, has been troubled since its October 2013 launch. Thousands of users who need to change information, such as their address or marital status, must undergo a cumbersome manual process rather than the faster, automated way the website was expected to offer.

Additionally, small business employees are still not allowed to enroll through the website and must obtain insurance directly from carriers. That function is now expected to be available next year at the earliest.

Hoffer said Monday that his office will focus on whether the state has plans in place to correct the site’s shortcomings. A number of reports from various independent contractors have highlighted those shortcomings and provided recommendations on how to address them.

Doug Hoffer

Doug Hoffer

“All of them include a number of recommendations and some of them go back to last year. That’s good, in a way, because we can check and see if adjustments were made,” Hoffer said. “We said, ‘Let’s try to be positive and provide info to the administration, the Legislature and the various departments and see how well they’ve responded.”

Hoffer said his review will begin by late September. That will allow time for an ongoing federal review, conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General, to be completed. There will be “no overlap” between the state and federal reviews, he said.

“We certainly didn’t want to be in their shop at the same time the IG’s folks are there,” Hoffer said.

The state review will not include contracts awarded by the state or money spent on the exchange, according to Hoffer.

“It’s not about contracts at this point. Some of that ground has been pretty heavily plowed,” he said. “Clearly, everybody knows and these reports have documented, that there have been a lot of problems.”

The state audit will involve two to three employees from the auditor’s office and is expected to take months to complete.

“These things are complicated and take a long time. I have yet to see an audit take less than four months — six is more likely,” Hoffer said. “It’s my intention to really encourage folks to find a way to get this done during the [legislative] session. That might involve trimming the objectives to save time.”

Milne launches TV ad

MONTPELIER — Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Milne has launched his first television commercial as the primary approaches next week.

The ad, which will be running on WPTZ, Fox 44/ABC 22 and WCAX through the primary, features footage from Milne’s campaign kickoff event last month in Barre. Former Republican Gov. James Douglas is prominently featured, calling Milne the next governor of Vermont.

“Internally, I think sort of the campaign family, we’re stoked about it. I think it’s very, very good and I’m appreciative of all the support from Gov. Douglas,” Milne said Tuesday.

The commercial also shows footage of Milne’s mother, former GOP state Rep. Marion Milne, who passed away on Aug. 11.

Milne said his campaign is spending just over $20,000 on the commercial through next Tuesday.

 

Racine out at AHS

MONTPELIER – Agency of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine is being replaced, the Shumlin administration announced Tuesday, as challenges within the agency mount.

According to Shumlin administration officials, current Health Commissioner Harry Chen will replace Racine on an interim basis while a permanent replacement is sought.

“I appreciate Doug’s hard work over three and a half years to help Vermont’s most vulnerable,” Shumlin said in a release.

Doug Racine

Doug Racine

Shumlin touted the agency’s move to a data-driven, results-based planning strategy and a revamped mental health system under Racine’s tenure.

But the agency has faced significant challenges, too. Vermont Health Connect, the state’s online health insurance marketplace that is overseen by the agency’s Department of Vermont Health Access, has struggled and remains hobbled. And The Department for Children and Families has faced scathing criticism following the recent deaths of several children, allegedly at the hands of caregivers.

“This has been a tough job, but now is the right time to start with new leadership to take the Agency of Human Services forward,” Shumlin said. “I appreciate Dr. Chen’s willingness to get us started on that challenge.”

Harry Chen

Harry Chen

Chen is expected to remain as Interim Secretary of AHS through the end of the year. Deputy Commissioner of Health Tracy Dolan will head the Health Department in his absence.

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

Vermont Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna dies

MONTPELIER — Vermont Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna, a frequent legal commentator for Vermont media outlets, died unexpectedly Monday, according to the school.

Hanna, 48, was an expert in constitutional law, the United States Supreme Court, and women and the law. She received a bachelor’s degree from Kalamazoo College in 1988 and a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1992. Her work has been published in leading journals, including the Harvard Law Review, Yale Law Journal, and Michigan Journal of Gender and the Law.

Hanna made frequent appearances on Vermont Public Radio and WCAX-TV, and provided comments and analysis for newspapers around the state.

“It is with the most profound sorrow that we announce the untimely death of our dear colleague Professor Cheryl Hanna,” the school said in a statement Monday. “Professor Hanna was a beloved teacher and role model to many within and beyond the Vermont Law School community. It is with heartache that we share this loss. She will be deeply missed by our faculty, staff, students, and alumni.”

Cheryl Hanna

Cheryl Hanna

Maryellen Apelquist, director of media relations for Vermont Law School said there would be no further comment from the school.

Hanna is survived by her husband and two children. A memorial service will be held at a later date and details will be announced when plans are finalized.

According to the school’s statement, Hanna consulted on constitutional cases and represented public interest organizations through the filing of amicus briefs in cases before state and federal courts.

“This included the amicus brief she and Vermont Law School students wrote on behalf of the Vermont Commission on Women in Dreves v. Hudson, the first case implicating Vermont’s Equal Pay Act. The book she co-authored, Domestic Violence and the Law: Theory and Practice, was the leading casebook on violence against women,” the statement reads.

According to her biography on the school’s website, Hanna previously served on the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign and as an assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore before joining the Vermont Law School faculty in 1994. She had also been a visiting professor at the University of California-Hastings College of the Law and at Seattle University School of Law.