Category Archives: State Government

Walz tapped for House seat

MONTPELIER – Tommy Walz, a former educator from Barre City, has been tapped by Gov. Peter Shumlin to replace former Rep. Tess Taylor.

Walz was picked from a list of three candidates submitted to Gov. Shumlin by the Barre City Democratic Committee.

“I am pleased to appoint Tommy Walz to fill this opening,” Shumlin said in a statement. “His long-term commitment and service to the Barre community will make him an excellent voice for his constituents in the Vermont House of Representatives.”

Walz first moved to Barre in 1967 to teach English and German at Spaulding High School. He and his wife Leslie moved several times, including a stint living and working in Germany. Walz came returned to Vermont in 1979 where he again taught English at Spaulding High School before working in computer sales and data consulting.

“I am proud to be joining the Barre contingent in the Vermont House of Representatives,” Walz said in a statement. “Barre has given us much and Leslie and I have had the chance to return some small measure through volunteering and serving on local school boards. Representing the people of Barre City in the Vermont House provides yet one more way for me to serve my community.”

Walz currently serves on the Barre Supervisory Union Board and the Spaulding High School Board.

Taylor resigned from her seat in the House last month to serve as the executive director of Vermont’s Coalition for Universal Reform. The newly formed group is planning a push for Shumlin’s universal, publicly-financed health care plan.

Shumlin’s office said Walz will be sworn in “promptly.”

State, CGI sign amended contract with new timeline and penalties

MONTPELIER — State officials and the contractor building Vermont Health Connect have signed off on a new agreement that sets a new schedule for launching missing functions and includes additional financial penalties for missed deadlines.

The amended contract with tech giant CGI was signed Tuesday by Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson and Gregg Mossburg, a senior vice president with the firm.

Under the amended contract, CGI must deliver “change of circumstance” functionality by May 21. By July 2, small business functionality must be operational. Failure to deliver by those dates will result in new financial penalties on top of the $5 million in “liquidated damages” the state has already claimed for CGI’s incomplete work.

“We really were trying to define an achievable road map and pair it with payment provisions and financial accountability so that we have an achievable plan and one that preserves for the state accountability for the success of that plan,” Larson said Thursday.

Lawrence Miller

Lawrence Miller

Vermont Health Connect, the state’s online health insurance marketplace required under the federal Affordable Care Act, launched last October with serious deficiencies. Users are still unable to edit their information, and small businesses must enroll directly with the state’s two insurers because the website is not functional for them. The ability to make online payments for premiums was finally added in early March.

Secretary of Commerce Lawrence Miller, tapped by Gov. Peter Shumlin in January to assist the beleaguered exchange team, said the previous contract with CGI “contemplated getting through development by October and everything being neat and clean.”

But late last year, after reviewing the state’s options, Miller and others began negotiating with CGI on a new contract that would help complete the project. Despite calls by Republicans to dump CGI, state officials determined that developing a new path with CGI was the best solution.

“There was this sort of fundamental question after December of do we finish the project with CGI or do we find somebody else. It was really clear, talking to other organizations and folks who have done this before, that the disruption of change, trying to change contractors, greatly exceeded the risk of negotiating a revised agreement and a revised path to done,” Miller said.

Massachusetts and the federal government have opted to drop CGI in favor of other tech firms. Other states are working with their contractors to redefine tasks and goals.

“When I’ve talked to people around the country, they are doing a combination of amendments to contracts and replacement of vendors. Everybody’s taking a slightly different approach. We did not consult with other states on the specifics of this,” Miller said.

Both sides “were pretty well firm on what was important to them,” according to Miller, but main components of the negotiated amendment “were not in substantial conflict.”

“Both parties wanted to finish the work and both parties recognized that this would be done in stages now,” he said.

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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.

Sen. Sally Fox loses battle with cancer

MONTPELIER — Chittenden County Sen. Sally Fox died early Friday morning after a prolonged battled with lung cancer.

Fox, 62, a Democrat from South Burlington, was in her second term in the Senate. She was serving on the Senate Health and Welfare and Appropriations Committees.

House Speaker Shap Smith announced her death Friday morning in the House chamber, saying she died peacefully, surrounded by family, around 3:15 a.m. Services will be held Sunday in South Burlington at Temple Sinai, according to Smith.

Later in the morning, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott gaveled the Senate to order by noting that Fox’s death was “bringing the first week of the session to a tragic close.” Fox’s desk was clear except for a single, white rose.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell said the recent news of Fox’s death made it “very difficult to compose our thoughts.” He said a resolution honoring Fox will be prepared for Tuesday, when senators will be able to provide their own remarks in her honor.

Fox’s colleagues in the Legislature said Friday that she was deeply respected for her work advocating for the poor and disabled through her work as an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid.

Fox was elected to the House in 1986 and served in that chamber for 14 years. She served as chairwoman of the House Appropriation and Judiciary Committees, and as House Assistant Majority Leader.

Sen. Sally Fox

Sen. Sally Fox

According to her Senate campaign website, Fox was most proud of her role in creating the Vermont Family Court system, which consolidated all family and child-related issues into a single venue.

Sen. Claire Ayer, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said a was placed outside the committee room to allow people to leave messages for Fox’s family.

“A lot of people who work in this building — lobbyists, students, pages, whatever — are grieving about Sen. Fox and … it’s surprising the number of constituents who come here … who are grieving and would like to say something to her family, so we have put some paper out there and a pen,” she said. said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, who served on the House Judiciary Committee when first appointed to the House, said Fox served as a mentor to him, and will be remembered for her role as an advocate.

“Sally Fox was a relentless champion for kids and vulnerable Vermonters. Those who often lack a voice always had an advocate with Sally in the State House,” Shumlin said in a statement. “Sally took me under her wing and taught me a great deal about how to effectively serve Vermonters in the State House. She was a great friend, and I will miss her tremendously.”

Fox is survived by her husband and two adult sons.

Services will take place Sunday at Temple Sinai in South Burlington on Sunday, followed by a private burial.

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.

 

Vermont to recover millions in tobacco settlement

MONTPELIER — The state will receive $14 million in civil penalties and legal relief from tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds following a 2005 lawsuit, Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell announced Monday.

The state sued the company over unsubstantiated advertising claims about the health consequences of one of its products.

A trial court ruled in 2010 that the company did not conduct sufficient scientific studies to support an advertising claim that a non-traditional cigarette, known as Eclipse, would reduce a smoker’s chance of developing cancer. The court awarded the state $8.3 million in civil penalties for the violations and issued a permanent injunction against Reynolds to prevent similar conduct in the future.

The court was in the process of considering the State’s request for attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in the lawsuit when the parties reached a settlement, according to Sorrell.

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell

Under the the terms of the settlement, the company will pay the state $8.3 million in civil penalties. The remaining amount will cover attorneys’ fees and costs and will be divided among the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, other state attorneys general offices and a private attorney that worked on the lawsuit, along with the National Association of Attorneys General Tobacco Enforcement Fund, which advanced funds for the lawsuit.

The permanent injunction against Reynolds will remain in effect.

“This was a long and hard, but successful fight. Reynolds crossed the line and it cost them. At a time when tobacco companies are trying to find ways to hook new smokers, Vermont has sent a message that advertising tobacco products with unsubstantiated health-benefit claims is illegal and will not be tolerated,” said Sorrell said in a statement.

Reynolds made its “less risk” claims in print ads placed in nationwide publications, on a website promoting the product, in direct mail materials sent to Vermont consumers and on cigarette packages of Eclipse sold in Vermont.

DVHA reveals second privacy breach

MONTPELIER — A state official revealed a second privacy breach Tuesday involving users on the state’s online health exchange but said the minor incident was caused by human error and did not involve a technology breakdown.

Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access, told the Health Care Oversight Committee Tuesday of the “privacy incident,” but said there was no “security breach.” Rather, a Vermont Health Connect representative made a human error, he said.

“This incident was isolated to two unique Vermont Health Connect users. It was a result of manual human customer service error and there was not a risk to other Vermont Health Connect users,” Larson said. “The issue has been investigated by Vermont Health Connect. We have made the appropriate reporting to CMS as we did in the other incident that was discussed prior.”

The privacy breach did not involve any outside intrusion into secure parts of the website or any type of hacking, Larson said.

The disclosure for the weekend incident was in stark contract to a first security breach revealed in November. Larson, when asked directly at a Nov. 5 House Health Care Committee hearing about security lapses, said no private information had been breached.

However, a records request made by the Associated Press revealed the department knew of a security breach about three weeks before Larson’s testimony to the House Health Care Committee. Larson’s vague answers to the committee earned a rare public rebuke from Gov. Peter Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith.

According to Larson, in the weekend incident a user called VHC to modify an application. The customer service representative attached information from another user with the exact same name to the caller’s file, he said.

Check the Wednesday editions of the Herald and Times Argus for the full story.

Some exchange bills to be mailed, online payment still unavailable

MONTPELIER — State officials said Monday that online functions to process premiums the health care plans selected by individuals and families on the state’s exchange will be deployed overnight for a Tuesday launch.

Online credit card payment is still not ready, however. That function will not launch until security testing is completed, according to Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson.

Invoices will be mailed later this week to individuals and families who have selected plans through the exchange. Those bills will need to be paid by check no later than Jan. 7 for coverage beginning Jan. 1.

The deployment of premium processing function is set to begin at 5 p.m. on Monday. The Vermont Health Connect website will be unavailable for applications and plan selection during the deployment, according to officials. The site is expected to be down until late Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile, the payment function for small businesses remains in testing.

As a result, small businesses and their employees who have selected health coverage through VHC will have current coverage extended into 2014 at 2013 rates until the payment function for small businesses is operational, officials said. Deductibles and out of pocket costs on all extended plans will reset on Jan. 1. Any expenditures will be credited to employees’ new exchange plan in 2014 as long as the carrier remains the same.

About 1,400 small businesses who have signed up for health coverage through the website online, over the phone, with a navigator or through a paper application are affected. Those businesses employ about 13,400 people.

Small businesses that have already elected to extend 2013 coverage or directly enroll through an insurance carrier into an exchange plan, or small businesses that chose to have their carrier roll them into an exchange plan that most closely resembles their current coverage are not impacted.

Check Tuesday’s Herald and Times Argus for the full story.

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

Forced medication rules rejected by legislative panel

MONTPELIER — Rules proposed by the Department of Mental Health regarding emergency involuntary procedures were rejected Thursday by the Legislature’s Administrative Rules Committee.

The department was seeking approval of rules to govern how and when psychiatric patients can be involuntarily secluded, restrained or be subjected to forced medication.

The state created a regional system of mental health treatment after Tropical Storm Irene destroyed the former Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury. Act 79, which created the regional system, also required that patients receive the same rights and protections at private hospitals that they would have received at the state hospital. 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.