April 23, 2017

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Brief 2015 Session Recap

A Sampling of Tim’s 2015 Legislative Efforts

As is always the case, no bill becomes a law because of one legislator – it’s always the work of many. So references to my sponsorship or authorship of bills should not be read to suggest others weren’t key to their passage.

HEALTH CARE POLICY ISSUES

Preserving Independent Medical Practices

If you’re like me, you’re worried about the slow disappearance of independent physician practices in Vermont. Independent practices provide alternatives to hospital-owned practices, and often deliver services at lower prices. Not to mention the important doctor-patient relationships which have developed over many years that are jeopardized when a practice gets purchased by a hospital and loses its autonomy.

One of the primary reasons independent practices are becoming an endangered species is because health insurers frequently pay far less to an independent physician than they pay to, say, a Fletcher Allen-owned physician for the exact same service. There is no good justification for this practice.

I authored language, which passed in S.139, to require that all insurers move toward parity when paying doctors for their services, with the Green Mountain Care Board overseeing this movement toward fairness. Hopefully it’s not too late. For more on the issue, click here.

Utilizing Technology to Improve Access to Health Services

Language I co-authored in S.139, which passed, allows the state’s Medicaid program to reimburse primary care providers who practice telemedicine. Telemedicine is the use of live, interactive video for a patient to consult with a health care provider. This will be most helpful to seniors with transportation challenges, and Vermonters living in very rural areas. Importantly, this should also reduce costs since Medicaid will not need to pay transportation-related expenses for the patients.

Responsible Alternatives to VT Health Connect

As the Governor’s deadline for a functional Vermont Health Connect nears, I joined Senator Jane Kitchel and Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott on a trip to Rhode Island to investigate the possibility of partnering with other states to reduce the operating costs, while improving the quality, of Vermont’s exchange. These promising conversations, which now include the Administration, have the potential to save taxpayers millions in the coming years. More info can be found here.

Saving Vermont Seniors’ Money 

Many Vermont patients’ eyes will glaze over when a health care official tells them they’re either “admitted” or “under observation” at a hospital. However, this technical-sounding distinction can be the difference between thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses for Vermont seniors, and impacts the Medicare benefits the individual is entitled to. I introduced S.5, which passed as a provision of S.139, to require Vermont’s hospitals to notify Medicare patients, in plain English, whether they have been admitted or are under observation so they can avoid getting slammed with huge (and avoidable) bills.

RIGHT TO PRIVACY

Respecting Private Lives in a Digital Era

In this age of Facebook and Twitter, the boundaries between public and private lives can be hard to discern. But I strongly believe, and I know many constituents do as well, that Vermonters should have a right to expect their private life to be just that – private. This is no easy concept to preserve in the face of rapid technological change. S.18 is a comprehensive bill addressing Vermonters’ right to privacy. A scaled-back version of the bill passed which extends the limitations on the use of data collected by law enforcement from Automated License Plate Readers. These readers, usually affixed to police cruisers, are able to generate massive amounts of data about our whereabouts. The bill that passed strikes a balance between legitimate law enforcement needs and our right to not be under surveillance by our government when we have not committed a crime. This fall, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on the remaining elements of the bill: the use of commercial and law enforcement drones; protection of personal medical records; and the use of personal information by corporations. Stay tuned for details about these hearings.Click here to read a Burlington Free Press article about the bill.

BUDGET ISSUES

Restructuring Government

S.33 and S.96 are complementary pieces of legislation I introduced aimed at restructuring two entities of state government to be more efficient and effective. Both were absorbed into H.117. The effect of the two bills is to phase out the obsolete operations of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, and to reduce costs at the administrative level of the E-911 Board. The combined effect of these two changes will be to save approximately $750,000/year for taxpayers.

Getting a Handle on IT Spending

If you aren’t aware of the struggles of Vermont Health Connect, you’ve been in hiding. This $100M+ tech project has been painful for state government, and, more importantly, painful for the Vermonters who need to use the site for their health care needs. But you may not know that this is just one of several substantial IT projects on the horizon for the state. Spending on IT is nearing $100M/year across state government, and unlike paving roads or administering heating assistance programs, few legislators truly understand the nature of the spending on these projects. Which is a serious problem.

In order to get IT spending under control, I joined two other Senators in introducing S.129, which was included in the budget bill. It creates an annual IT budget that will be presented to the Legislature and the public. We simply cannot afford to overspend on IT, and we need greater expertise when evaluating and authorizing new IT initiatives.

Recouping Funds from Fraudsters

Senator Dick Sears and I introduced S.140, which allows the State to receive a greater share of any compensation when someone is found to have defrauded the federal government. An example of this would be if a medical provider was falsifying Medicaid claims to receive payments for services not actually rendered. The measure, which passed and has been signed into law, will bring a few hundred thousands of dollars to the state treasury annually.

TAX POLICY

A Transparent, Fair, and Effective Tax Code

Last year I introduced S.221, which became Act 200. The law established a clear legislative purpose for every special provision in the tax code. When we allow a taxpayer or class of taxpayers to receive a credit, exemption, or deduction, we should at least know why we’re doing it and have an explanation for it. This year’s S.41 was the logical follow up. The bill creates a process to measure the effectiveness of each specialty tax provision in the Vermont tax code so we can determine whether it is achieving its intended purpose. These so-called “tax expenditures” total nearly $1 billion so the state has a lot riding on this evaluation. Click here for a good VPR piece on the subject.  For a complete list of Vermont’s Tax Expenditures (and the associated costs), click here.

JUDICIARY ISSUES

Supporting Victims

When a Vermonter is the victim of a sexual assault and seeks law enforcement assistance and/or medical attention, a special team of nurses evaluate the person to ensure that any evidence is preserved and properly catalogued. S.60 addresses an ancillary issue to these terrible situations – the matter of who pays for the special examination. The legislation, which passed, makes sure that the victim is not burdened by out-of-pocket expenses, and that the costs are shared by the health insurer and the state’s victim services fund.

Rooting Out Animal Cruelty, and Making Communities Whole from Crime

I introduced S.102, which passed, to address two issues: to provide law enforcement with the tools needed to prevent organized animal fighting; and to be able to seize certain assets of people participating in animal fighting rings or high level drug trading. The forfeiture of assets related to these crimes will serve as an anvil of sorts in terms of deterring repeat offenses. VT Digger wrote a piece about the bill while it was winding through the legislative process.

CLEAN ENERGY POLICY

Protecting Ratepayers, Promoting Clean Energy

Last year the Finance Committee, which I chair, directed the Department of Public Service to develop a Vermont Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) to protect ratepayers while eliminating the “double-counting” of renewable energy credits (RECs) that has been going on for years (which allows other states to move more slowly toward renewables). This is particularly timely because if Vermont didn’t act, other states that buy Vermont utilities’ RECs would stop doing so, causing a significant jump in Vermonters’ electric bills. H.40 was the response to that directive and it establishes the energy “playing field” for the next decade.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Increasing Access to Capital for Start-Ups

Six years ago, when I served on the Economic Development Committee, we created the Vermont Technology Loan Program, administered by the Vermont Economic Development Authority. This lending program provides much needed capital to start-up and early-stage businesses that cannot easily access conventional bank loans. This year, we updated the law to allow more generous loan amounts, reflecting increased cost pressures facing new businesses.