Shumlin Talks Health, Education Reform

October 04, 2014

Valley News

By Rick Jurgens
Valley News Staff Writer

West Lebanon — Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin promised Friday to continue to push for health care and education reforms if re-elected but said that no fresh injections of funding are expected for Vermont’s overloaded mental health care and prison systems.

In a wide-ranging 75-minute talk with Valley News editors and reporters, the second-term Democrat sounded a familiar theme: The importance of boosting the economy and bringing good jobs to Vermont.

But most of his carefully measured comments seemed to follow a recipe designed to satisfy Vermonters’ appetites for change in key areas while avoiding as much as possible the heartburn of taxation.

On his signature initiative to rework Vermont’s health care system, Shumlin reiterated his commitment to rein in costs and promised that the new single-payer insurance system his administration is drafting would not be a source of headaches.

“We are moving toward a simpler, not a more complicated, system,” he said. “It doesn’t require an exchange website because you’re not trying to take commercial insurance and strengthen the insurance companies in the business of health care.”

While downplaying the role of a website in a future system, Shumlin acknowledged the harm done by the problems with the $80 million Vermont Health Connect website that prompted his administration to shut it down for repairs. Shumlin said he didn’t believe those problems had “compromised the chances for a single-payer system to work well.”

But, he added: “I think that (the problems) have undermined the confidence of Vermonters in believing that government can get health care right.”

That confidence would be restored, he said, as his administration comes forward with “a smart plan to spend less money for better outcomes with a more fair way of paying for health care where everybody has health care as a right, not a privilege.”

But the Shumlin administration has missed two previous deadlines for unveiling a plan for raising the $2 billion annually that would be needed to replace employment-based, premium-funded health insurance with a single-payer system that would cover all residents. Shumlin said that his team is faced with “trying to put together a financing package that nobody’s ever done before in America.”

“It’s incredibly complicated,” he said. “We have to get it right. We’ll have it done by January.”

Shumlin backed away from offering a definitive timetable for when the new plan would begin to cover Vermonters. “I want to get as close to Jan. 1, 2017, as we can,” he said, but “I understand the obstacles to hitting that date exactly.”
That understanding had grown as he observed the problems encountered with implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act, which showed: “Don’t hang yourself on a date you cannot meet.”

Vermont’s economic future is dependent on addressing issues in health care and education, which is largely funded by property taxes, Shumlin said. “Vermonters are facing property taxes that keep going up,” he said. “Just like health care, those costs are not sustainable.”

Shumlin, who was accompanied by Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe, said that while both problems were important, he as governor could more directly address education issues, especially the effect of Vermont’s shrinking enrollment on the state’s cherished network of small, local schools.

“To advance health care we need legislative involvement,” he said. “We would love to have legislative involvement on this challenge (education), but there’s not a lot of consensus about what that would look like.”

Shumlin said that he and Holcombe are working with local school boards to size up the problems they face as they try to ease property tax burdens while maintaining and improving the quality of education. “The secretary and I are out making change happen and we don’t need legislative approval to do that,” he said. “We’re out literally in communities meeting with folks.”

Shumlin rejected a call by Scott Milne, the Republican candidate for governor, for a two-year freeze on the statewide property tax for education. That amounted to saying “let’s blow up the system and force the Legislature to do something,” Shumlin said. “I urge Vermonters to dig more deeply than a sound bite or a gimmick.”

But Shumlin made it clear that he had no immediate plans to “urge Vermonters to dig more deeply” to provide additional revenue to the state’s network of mental health care facilities. That network got a boost with the July opening of the new Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin, which will add 25 high-level care beds to the state’s inventory.

While the new hospital is expected to at least partially open up the bottleneck that has kept some mentally ill patients waiting in emergency rooms until psychiatric care became available, mental health caregivers from inside and outside administration have said that more still needs to be done. In particular, administrators of community mental health centers, which in many cases are the preferred venues for care, have said that low pay makes it difficult to hire and retain staff.

Shumlin pointedly did not promise to address those concerns. “We’re always listening,” he said. “We also need to work within the budget that we have.”
Shumlin also refrained from offering any timetable for ending the practice of sending Vermont prisoners to other prisons out of state. While keeping prisoners in-state is preferable because it allows families to visit, the state doesn’t have enough cells, Shumlin said: “We’re about 500 beds short right now.”

He said that the state’s efforts to treat rather than jail non-violent substance abusers might eventually allow Vermont to keep more prisoners at home. “That may reduce that demand over time, but I certainly can’t promise it, because it depends on how successful this effort is,” he said.

Shumlin said there has been some progress in the state’s response to the opioid crisis. The number of substance abusers receiving treatment had risen to about 2,600 from about 1,700 in January, when his State of the State speech to the Legislature focused on the issue.

“We have reduced waiting lines ... but there’s still people in line because there (are) many more people showing up for treatment than there were in January,” he said. That might, at least partly, be a result of increased public attention to the issue, he said.

Rick Jurgens can be reached at rjurgens@vnews.com or 603-727-3229.