NANCY REMSEN Free Press Staff Writer
12:36, Jan 28, 2014
MONTPELIER — The earliest launch date for Green Mountain Care is January of 2017, but at the Statehouse it feels like the switch to this state-financed health insurance system covering all Vermonters is imminent.
Several legislative committees schedule time each week to talk about issues related to Green Mountain Care and both the Shumlin Administration and the Legislature are hiring consultants.
"The committees want to understand what the lay of the land is now," House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, said, adding,"We hired (Ken) Thorpe to help us pull together where we are."
This buzz over Green Mountain Care comes in a year when neither the executive nor legislative branch is required to take any action. Still, some lawmakers say the discussion of this major initiative is long overdue and others have low expectations about what will be accomplished.
"There will be some talk that won't amount to much," predicted Rep. Thomas Koch, R-Barre.
Given there is an election in November, one also might have expected the Shumlin administration and the Democrat-dominated Legislature to avoid discussing such a controversial initiative. Bringing up Green Mountain Care allows critics to remind the public about the months-long, disastrous launches of the Vermont and national health insurance exchanges and raise questions about making another big change to the health care system.
The Shumlin administration has given itself until January 2015 to deliver to lawmakers the real hot potato in the move to Green Mountain Care -- a recommendation for how Vermonters would pay for this proposed insurance system that would cover every resident.
Senate Republican Leader Joseph Benning of Caledonia welcomes the chance to start talking about Green Mountain Care. He would have preferred an earlier start to the policy debate and criticized the Shumlin administration for failing to deliver a detailed funding scheme for Green Mountain Care in 2013, as called for in the 2011 law that laid out the road to the new system.
"I am beside myself that we didn't get the report a year ago," Benning said. He worries about how much remains to be decided, constructed and tested. "This is the biggest thing we will face in this building in our lifetime."
The pending mid-year budget adjustment bill includes $150,000 for consultants to help the executive branch research financing options for Green Mountain Care.
The Secretary of Administration and the University of Massachusetts Medical School for Health Law and Economics finalized a $50,000 contract Jan. 21. It calls for the consultant to respond to questions and possibly update modeling used in the health care financing research it carried out for the state in 2011.
Under the contract, the university group also could be asked to advise the governor on policy and implementation issues.
Robin Lunge, director of health care reform for the Shumlin administration defended the expenditures.
"We know we ran out of time with Vermont Health Connect. I don't want to make that mistake again," she said. Vermont Health Connect is the new online insurance marketplace mandated by federal health reform law. Vermont officials blame its rocky start on the compressed schedule for its development.
The Legislature is spending money on consulting, too.
The Joint Fiscal Office has signed a four-month, $48,000 contract with Kenneth Thorpe, a professor of health policy and management at Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University and chairman of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease.
Thorpe, who worked for the Legislature in 2006 when it enacted a state health insurance program for the uninsured called Catamount Health, spent two days last week getting acquainted with the committees he expects to work with most frequently between now and May.
Thorpe's new contract, signed Jan 13, calls for him to:
* Provide analysis of potential cost impact.
* Develop information for legislative decision-making on implementation issues.
* Make recommendations for further study of the economic impacts and financing options.
* Participate in discussions with legislators, the Legislature's staff, the Shumlin administration and representatives of the health care interests.
House Republican Leader Donald Turner of Milton said he was left out of the decision-making process on hiring Thorpe.
"Do I think it is money well spent? I don't know," Turner said. "What are we supposed to use him for?"
Without a financing proposal from the administration, Turner continued, "How do we have an expert analyze it?"
Still Turner has assembled a team to work with Thorpe on "framing some of the questions" that need to be answered. "We are going to use him."
"He is someone all of the caucuses can use," Speaker Smith assured Tuesday.