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.

Lawmakers launch new PAC

MONTPELIER — A pair of moderate lawmakers — one a Democrat, the other a Republican — have launched a nonpartisan PAC aimed at electing candidates that seek “fiscal responsibility” and “balanced, common-sense public policies.”

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann

Reps. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, and Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, who is not seeking reelection, announced the new political action committee, Vision to Action Vermont, on Monday. The duo, who have worked together on the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee for the past four years, say they want to “encourage economic prosperity, greater opportunities for Vermont families and businesses, and individual liberties and responsibility.”

“I am very excited to launch this new endeavor,” Scheuermann, who flirted with a run for governor earlier this year, said in a press release. “For many years, I have advocated strongly for a long-term, comprehensive strategy for economic growth in Vermont, and this organization will help bring that focus to the forefront.”

Ralston said November’s election is key, with lawmakers set to tackle health care, property taxes and “taxes in general” during the next legislative biennium that will have an impact on the state’s small businesses and families.

Rep. Paul Ralston

Rep. Paul Ralston

“We must be sure that those in elected positions address those issues thoughtfully and independently, and with an eye toward the benefits and consequences to our economy,” he said in the release.

The PAC plans to raise money to support, promote and endorse candidates of all parties “who are committed to policies of true economic growth, and show great leadership, strength, and independence, yet do so with compassion and respect.”

Deadline for AHS reorganization extended

MONTPELIER — Governor Peter Shumlin’s own Pathways from Poverty Council is asking him to allow for public participation before the Agency of Human Services issues its recommendations on how to address systems, policies and procedures within the agency.

As a result, Shumlin’s office says it is planning to extend an Aug. 1 deadline for AHS Secretary Doug Racine to submit a plan to the governor’s office to reorganize the agency. That deadline will now be Oct. 1.

Shumlin’s order for a reorganization plan, along with other more immediate changes he called for in May, came on the heels of the deaths of two children involved with the Department for Children and Families. Two-year-old Dezirae Sheldon of Poultney died in February and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw died in April. Both deaths were ruled homicides resulting from trauma.

Shumlin said a review and reorganization of DCF is needed because the current department was created from two others in 2004. He said he wants to ensure DCF is focused on its core mission: protecting children and strengthening families. Work not associated with those issues may be reassigned to other parts of state government, according to the governor.

Christopher Curtis

Christopher Curtis

Christopher Curtis, co-chairman of the Pathways from Poverty Council, created by Shumlin through an executive order in December, said council members are aware of ongoing action by a special legislative panel.

“I think the council members became increasingly aware that there’s clearly a public process that the Legislature has undertaken on the questions of child protection. It’s clearly been undertaken with urgency and great concern, as is appropriate,” he said.

But members also want to ensure that any changes made by the administration to DCF also includes input from stakeholders and the public.

“I think many of the stakeholders around the table at the poverty council starting thinking that if there are major policy chances being considered that may have a big ripple effect,” he said.

Council members “wanted to be a part of whatever changes the administration is making,” Curtis said, “rather than just respond to those.”

The council delivered a letter to Racine requesting more time and public input at its Thursday meeting. Shumlin agreed on Friday.

“The Poverty Council has done tremendous work in the past year, helping us formulate smarter, more responsive policies for Vermonters in need,” Shumlin said in a statement. “I am grateful for their work, and appreciate their suggestion that we take more time and receive more input prior to formulating further recommendations regarding the work of the Agency of Human Services and the Department of Children and Families.”

Shumlin said his administration will work with the council on receiving public input.

“I’ve asked Secretary Racine and his Agency team to coordinate with the Poverty Council to ensure we receive strong feedback in this process, and look forward to receiving their further recommendations by October 1st,” Shumlin said in his statement.

Curtis said additional input will help the administration reform the agency in a constructive way.

“We can’t possibly represent all the constituencies out there. Our hope is that this will invite more process … and allow people an opportunity to either write to the governor’s office or write to the secretary,” he said. “I think to open that process will give the administration the benefit of more solutions and informing their decisions.”

Milne admits past health, legal troubles

MONTPELIER — Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Milne revealed in a statement to reporters Thursday that he was arrested three times in college and suffered a stroke in 2006.

The arrests, two for driving under the influence of alcohol and one for possession marijuana and cocaine, all resulted in convictions. Milne said in a telephone interview Thursday that the cases were “settled as expeditiously as possible without spending money on counsel.”

“I don’t think about them on a daily basis, but my presumption is they are part of the public record,” he said.

In 2006, Milne suffered an ischemic stroke caused by a blood clot in his brain. He said he has made a full recovery, suffers “very little residual effect,” and has been cleared by doctors to campaign and serve as governor.

“Basically, I have a little bit of numbness on one side of my buddy and that really is about it,” Milne said.

He gave credit for his recovery to his daughter who he said sought immediate medical attention when the stroke occurred.

Milne, who has yet to formally launch his campaign, said he wanted the information about his past to be out in the open. He said facts about his past “might be important and relevant” to supporters.

Scott Milne

Scott Milne

“I think we wanted to get it out. If we started to campaign earlier we would have sent it out a lot earlier,” he said. “It was a consideration when I was weighing whether or not to run.”

Milne, in the statement sent to reporters, said “Vermonters have a right to a governor who is upfront and transparent.” He promised transparency about his personal life as well as the “economic challenges and crisis of affordability we face as a state.”

Brock bows out

MONTPELIER — Republican Randy Brock, the Vermont GOP’s nominee for governor in 2012, announced in an email Sunday that he will not challenge Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin again this year.

Brock, a former state auditor and state senator, had been publicly mulling a run. His decision comes after Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann and former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman already bowed out this year.

Scott Milne, president of Milne Travel, is the only other known Republican considering a run. Milne has said he wants a primary, however.

“I will not be a candidate for Governor of Vermont in 2014,” Brock wrote in his email. “This decision has not been easy to reach. I have arrived at it over several months after careful thought, much input and serious deliberation.”

Brock lost the 2012 race to Shumlin after winning only 38 percent of the vote after putting about $300,000 of his own money into the campaign. Brock said he was not prepared to pump his own cash into a race this year.

He said he is opting out of challenging Shumlin again this year despite persistent urging to do so from supporters.

Randy Brock

Randy Brock

“I am thankful to the many Vermonters who have called upon me to run. I have heard from people from all over our state offering words of encouragement,” he wrote. “This outpouring of support from so many has been extremely heartening and I will always be grateful for their unwavering loyalty.”

Brock, noting that his name will not appear on a ballot for the first time in 10 years, said he will miss being out on the campaign trail. But, sitting the election out “is the right decision for me and my family,” he said.

He pledged to remain “involved in helping to shape public policy.” The former auditor also said he plans “to continue to contribute to the debate through critical analysis and commentary.”

Another exchange deadline to be missed

MONTPELIER — Change of circumstance functionality expected to go live this weekend on Vermont Health Connect will not be deployed as testing continues, according to Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson.

The state’s vendor, CGI, was supposed to have the change of circumstance function live on the health insurance exchange website by May 21 based on an amendment to the original contract. But the state reached an agreement on a revised work plan to extend the deadline to June 8. Now there is a new delay.

“We’re making very good progress on the development of the functionality and we’re close with automated change of circumstance functionality, but have made the decision that it’s not ready to go this weekend into the live environment,” Larson said Friday.

When deployed, the upgrade will allow thousands of Vermonters to edit personal information online if mistakes were made during registration, or if they experienced a life-changing event such as marriage. A backlog of 10,000 requests has amassed since the site launched in October.

“It’s important to us to make sure that the functionality, when it’s ready to go, is ready to serve Vermonters well. So, we’re going to continue our work until we feel like it’s ready to serve Vermonters, and focus on the quality and thoroughness of our work at this point,” Larson said.

Rep. Michael Fisher

Rep. Michael Fisher

The delays are frustrating lawmakers, including House Health Committee Chairman Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln.

“I think this is a really serious problem and I think it’s really an unacceptable situation that we’re in right now. Ten thousand households, many of whom may have small inconsequential changes, a change of address or something, but many of these Vermonters are worried that they’re not going to be able to get the care that they need,” Fisher said.

Continued issues and delays with the exchange site could damage future health care reform efforts, he said.

“I just know that there’s a lot of worry out there and a lot of frustration and I have been hearing a lot of it,” Fisher said. “It really does impact people’s view of our ability to move forward on health care reform.”

Meanwhile, the state is negotiating with a new vendor to help the state deal with the backlog in change of circumstance requests. The backlog increased by about 2,000 requests in the last month or so.

The contract, details of which remain confidential as negotiations continue, was expected to be signed by the end of Friday, Larson said. It will provide additional workers to help users update their information.

“It will help in the ability to have the automated functionality be able to assist in the work of resolving the backlog of change of circumstance requests. It will make it faster, but it will not eliminate the work left to do in making sure that we respond to all of those Vermonters who have made requests,” he said.

State officials expect users will still want assistance in changing information once the functionality is deployed.

“We fully expect that there will be a lot of people who will continue to want assistance in that process and we’ll be able to be more efficient with that,” he said. “It’s still going to take a significant effort to respond to everybody.”

Larson said he would not provide a specific date when testing will be completed and the system can be upgraded. “I think we are hopeful that we will be able to deploy this functionality soon. Again, we really have made a significant amount of progress,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Lisman declines gov bid

MONTPELIER — Campaign for Vermont founder and former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman announced Wednesday he will not launch a bid to unseat Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Lisman, the former chairman of the JP Morgan Chase Global Equity Division, said he was considering a campaign for governor at the urging of Vermonters. But in a statement issued Wednesday Lisman said he will instead focus on advocacy efforts.

“I love Vermont and believe that she faces serious challenges as seldom before in her history,” Lisman said in his statement. “At this time, however, I believe I can best contribute to improving Vermont’s future by publicly and vigorously advocating for a focused, core set of moderate, nonpartisan and common sense government reforms. Indeed, this coalition building effort is the best approach to policy change and consistent with my focus since 2011.”

Bruce Lisman

Bruce Lisman

Wednesday’s announcement follows on the heals of one made by Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, who just last week said she would not seek the GOP gubernatorial nomination and challenge Shumlin, a two-term Democrat.

Scott Milne, president of Milne Travel, and Randy Brock, a former state senator auditor and the GOP’s failed 2012 nominee, are the only other known Republicans considering a run.

Lisman was being viewed by Democrats as a serious challenger. The Vermont Democratic Party in recent months attacked Campaign for Vermont, a group that Lisman has pumped more than $1 million into, for being a conservative organization cloaked as a nonpartisan advocacy group.

Despite declining to run, Lisman’s announcement included an indictment of Shumlin’s tenure as governor, saying Vermonters are concerned about the state’s future. He said he plans to focus on the need for job growth and economic development, comprehensive ethics standards in government, transparency in health care reform and reducing property taxes.

“The vast majority of Vermonters, from all different parts of the state and all different backgrounds, want to see expanded job opportunities and economic growth which stem from a stronger business environment, a return to responsible budget management, ethics standards in government, enhanced transparency, particularly on health care, and a better and more effective education system,” Lisman said.

The plans Lisman laid out in his announcement could set him up for a future run.

“I will focus on showcasing the public’s growing frustration about these issues and the need to implement tangible solutions for true change, change that Vermonters are demanding” he said. “Vermonters have made it clear they are not satisfied with the direction of the state and I will make it my mission to influence citizen-led forward progress.”

Another exchange deadline missed, but state extends timeframe

MONTPELIER — A function missing from Vermont’s online health insurance marketplace will not be added by today’s deadline, but state officials say they are giving the contractor additional time to complete the project before they look to impose penalties.

Under an amended contract signed in early April, tech giant CGI was required to deliver “change of circumstance” functionality by today. The upgrade would allow thousands of Vermonters to edit their personal information online if mistakes are made during registration, or if they experience a life-changing event such as marriage.

But progress remains slow, and the function remains in testing, according to Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access.

“We will not have the change of circumstances functionality tomorrow,” Larson said Tuesday.

Mark Larson

Mark Larson

Vermont Health Connect, the state’s online health insurance marketplace required under the federal Affordable Care Act, launched in October with serious deficiencies. Users are still unable to edit their information, and small businesses must enroll directly with the state’s insurers because the website is not functional for them.

The ability for individuals to make online payments for premiums was added in early March. Prior to that, payment had to be mailed in by check.

Larson said the “change of circumstance” upgrade has been postponed, likely until June, because it is not ready to be integrated into the website.

“We’re not going to implement any new functionality until we’re sure that it’s ready and fully tested,” he said.

“After careful consideration and reflecting on what we’ve learned over the past few months … I expect that we will agree to push the expected delivery date for change of circumstance to June 8,” Larson said. “I think that is a more realistic time frame for the functionality to be completed the way we would expect to.”

The state is allowing the use of a provision in the $84 million contract with CGI that allows for a change in deadlines if both parties agree. Larson said he expects the formal agreement to be signed today, setting the new June 8 deadline.

The state, by agreeing to a change in date, is also pushing back when it can begin to collect on the financial penalties it is allowed to assess for late delivery, according to the contract. Under the contract, the state can take a 12.5 percent discount on the cost of the function.

CGI can “earn” back some pay, however, depending on how quickly it completes each task after a missed deadline. Completion within seven days will allow for a 50 percent reduction in the penalty. Completion within 14 days will allow CGI to earn back 25 percent of the penalty, and completion within 28 days will allow for a 10 percent reduction in the penalty.

Those penalties will not be available until after June 8, if the agreement between the state and CGI is signed.

“By agreeing to a change in date we agree that those penalties will be applied if the delivery is not accomplished on June 8,” Larson said. “The penalties are all triggered by the agreed-upon date.”

Larson said June 8, “is more realistic” for upgrading the site and adding change of circumstance.

“Vermonters have the appropriate expectation that that function be available to them, and I know that Vermonters are frustrated by that not being there today,” he said. “I share that frustration and have a responsibility (to develop) a plan that is most likely to be successful and I think the change is consistent with that.”

Larson said the state will look to assess financial penalties if the new date is not met.

“I believe that the plan to achieve success is more likely with the change of date,” he said. “We aren’t eliminating any of our ability to impose financial penalties. We reserve all of those rights in the contract.”

The amended contract, signed in April, also requires CGI to deliver the small business enrollment function by July 2. No changes have been made to that deadline.

“We are still evaluating that. We’ve made no change there, though,” Larson said. “That date still stands, right now.”

A spokeswoman for CGI did not respond to phone and email messages Tuesday.

Scheuermann bows out of gov race

MONTPELIER — With the Legislature adjourned, the focus in Vermont politics now shifts to the election in November and the potential races ahead.

Several people are weighing a run to unseat Gov. Peter Shumlin, including a former Wall Street executive and the president of a well-known travel company. One lawmaker, Republican Rep. Heidi Scheuermann of Stowe, announced Tuesday she has decided against a bid of her own.

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann

“After a great deal of thought and consideration over the last two months, I have decided that I will not run for Vermont Governor this year,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “Given the incredible support and encouragement I have received from Vermonters all over the state, this decision was a very difficult one, but it is simply not the right time for me.”

Instead, Scheuermann said she will seek re-election to her House seat.

“I will continue my vigorous advocacy for a long-term strategy for economic growth, a comprehensive reform of our education and education funding system, and health care reform that works for all Vermonters,” she wrote.

House passes minimum wage bill, on way to gov’s desk

MONTPELIER — The Senate version of a minimum wage bill was passed by the House Friday night and will become law after it emerged as the only feasible option for boosting the incomes of the state’s lowest-paid workers.

Republicans agreed to suspend House rules Friday evening, allowing the bill to be taken up a day ahead of schedule. The plan — approved by the Senate on Monday — was passed by the House on a 132-3 vote and is now on its way to the governor’s desk after a bumpy few days.

The legislation will raise the minimum hourly rate to $10.50 in 2018. In the interim, the minimum wage will go from its current $8.73 per hour to $9.15 on Jan. 1. The wage would then go to $9.60, $10 and $10.50, respectively, over the next three years. Annual cost-of-living increases based on the consumer price index will occur each year thereafter.

The Senate version was reluctantly adopted by some Democrats and Progressives after all other options to raise the wage sooner were exhausted.

“We know we can do better. The House voted for what we thought was a better bill, but after a long process, this is the bill that we have. But, it accomplishes what we need to do,” Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, said on the House floor Friday night, acknowledging the disappointment with the bill by some members.

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Scenes from the race to end the session

Technicality stalls minimum wage debate

MONTPELIER — A misprint in the House calendar discovered late Thursday night doomed consideration of a minimum wage bill until Saturday, just as Democratic leaders ramped up efforts to corral an unruly caucus.

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, made a point of order around 10:30 p.m., hours after debate had begun. But House Speaker Shap Smith said minority Republicans were correct, and ruled that action must be postponed and placed back on the calendar, making Saturday the next day the bill will see action.

Democratic leaders were looking to pass a scaled back minimum wage bill from the more ambitious plan they previously passed. The new plan, hashed out following a day-long back-and-forth between the House, Senate and governor’s office, is much closer to one favored by Gov. Peter Shumlin. Continue reading