Monday, September 30, 2013

Mark Larson: VT Health Connect is Ready to Go Live Tomorrow

Posted By on Mon, Sep 30, 2013 at 5:35 PM

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Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access (DVHA), said Monday afternoon that, despite 11th-hour claims to the contrary, Vermont Health Connect is "prepared to go live tomorrow." That's when Vermont officially launches its new online health insurance exchange, the first step in the state's implementation of the federally mandated Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare."

Larson took time out of what is arguably his most stressful day of the year to respond to criticisms about the new online exchange leveled by Republican Randy Brock. On Sunday, the former Vermont auditor, state senator and GOP gubernatorial candidate published a scathing editorial on VT Digger likening Vermont Health Connect to The Wizard of Oz, all "smoke and mirrors, and behind the curtain there is no Wizard — there is only Peter Shumlin."

"The fact of the matter is this: The system doesn’t work," Brock charged.

Not so, according to Larson.

"I think the recent op-ed is unfortunate in that it tries to create concern about our ability to successfully launch Vermont Health Connect," Larson told Seven Days this afternoon. Contrary to Brock's claims, he said, Vermonters will still be able to go online, compare health insurance plans, sign up for an account and then select a plan that works for them. If Vermonters get that far in October, he added, they’ll be invoiced come November and be able to pay either electronically or by check.

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Health Reform Opponents to Robo-Call 30,000 Vermonters Tuesday

Posted By on Mon, Sep 30, 2013 at 5:16 PM

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When Vermont's new health insurance exchange goes live Tuesday morning, its chief opponents plan to flood the state with automated phone calls criticizing it.

Darcie Johnston, the founder of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, says her organization plans to robo-call 30,000 households with a message warning Vermonters that, thanks to Gov. Peter Shumlin, they "could be left uninsured in just three months."

"Why?" the message continues. "Gov. Shumlin got the legislature to require that individuals and small employers must buy health insurance only through an online exchange called Vermont Health Connect — and the exchange may not be ready in time."

The message, which Johnston says will cost $800 to deploy, provides recipients the option to "press 1 now" to be connected with the governor — or at least the poor, beleaguered staffers answering his phones on the fifth floor of the Pavilion State Office Building. A separate message, which will be left on the voicemail systems of those who don't pick up, will helpfully provide the gov's number. 

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Morning Read: VT Health Connect's Bumpy Ride on the Yellow Brick Road

Posted By on Mon, Sep 30, 2013 at 11:04 AM

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There's nothing worse than missing a major deadline — and that's doubly true when everyone is watching, especially your political opponents, who are so hoping you blow it.

Vermont Health Connect, the state's health insurance exchange created to comply with the federal Affordable Care Act, is scheduled to launch tomorrow. But officials have already announced that the exchange will not be able to accept payments until Nov. 1. That's because, as VT Digger's Andrew Stein reported on Friday, CGI Systems and Technologies, the vendor hired to build critical components of the state's new health insurance exchange, fell badly behind in getting the job done.

Now it appears the Shumlin administration doubled down on its bet on CGI, signing an amended $84 million contract with the IT company — twice the value of the original contract — despite the fact that the company missed some key deadlines for implementing the new web-based exchange. As Stein writes:

The administration said CGI has failed to meet more than half of Vermont’s 21 performance deadlines, called “critical milestones.” Although the state has the contractual power to penalize CGI for falling behind schedule, it has not exercised this authority.

The state could charge CGI as much as $125,000 a day in penalties, depending on the length of the delay and the importance of the milestone.

Shumlin's critics were quick to jump on the bad news about Obamacare. In a long but cogent Sunday editorial on VT Digger, the former Republican gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock likened the story of Vermont Health Connect to the Wizard of Oz, where, despite the illusion of an all-powerful wizard, there's nothing behind the curtain "but a little old con artist, who has no magical powers at all."

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Rachel Siegel Appointed Director of Peace and Justice Center

Posted By on Sat, Sep 28, 2013 at 12:54 PM

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Burlington City Councilor Rachel Siegel, a Progressive Party member and social-change activist, has been named executive director of the Peace and Justice Center.

Although the nonprofit center has been financially troubled in recent years, Siegel said it has regained enough financial security to be able to hire its first paid director in three years.

Siegel's position will be half-time initially, expanding to 40 hours a week when funding becomes available, she said. That may take "several months," Siegel added. She starts work on Tuesday, October 1.

Siegel declined to reveal how much she will earn in the post — except to say the center "practices what it preaches," and she'll be paid more than the "livable wage" of $13.94 an hour that Burlington sets for its own employees as per city ordinance. The PJC commissioned the study that determined that amount 13 years ago.The executive director job also comes with benefits, Siegel said.

The Burlington mother of two will be leaving her part-time jobs as a children's dance and gym instructor at the Burlington YMCA and as a social-skills coach for students at the University of Vermont's College of Medicine. Siegel said she intends to "devote 100 percent effort" to her council post and the PJC job.

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Friday, September 27, 2013

Carbon-Free Shipping Project Sets Sail up Lake Champlain

Posted By on Fri, Sep 27, 2013 at 8:05 PM


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The Vermont Sail Freight Project's 39-and-a-half-foot sail barge, the Ceres, completed its maiden voyage today, gliding into Burlington Bay around 4:30 this afternoon; it left Vergennes shortly after 10 this morning. A lone trumpeter played classic tunes from a dock at the Burlington Boathouse as the 19th century-style, wind-powered craft approached.

As Seven Days reported in April, Erik Andrus, a Ferrisburg farmer and baker, conceived of Project as a carbon-neutral way to shuttle food grown and produced in the Champlain Valley to spots around the northeast.

Roughly 30 people were on hand to celebrate the vessel's arrival — including fans of the project, tourists basking in the sun, and a burly cyclist from Bike Recycle Vermont with a small trailer in tow. After a small crew unloaded the craft's cargo of grain and garlic, the cyclists delivered the produce to Great Harvest Bread Company and City Market.

Not only was today the maiden voyage for the project's barge — built with support from the Willowell Foundation and named for the Roman goddess of agriculture — it was also practice for a trip the crew will be making to New York City next month. Brian Goblick, who built parts of the Ceres and has been handling logistics for the project, explained they will be stopping at ports along the Hudson Valley to drop off goods and hold dockside events and demonstrations.

The Ceres arrives in Burlington. With his sons, Erik Andrus prepares to disembark. Photos courtesy of Charles Eichacker. 

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The Scoreboard: This Week's Winners and Losers

Posted By on Fri, Sep 27, 2013 at 4:00 AM

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Who won and lost the week in Vermont news and politics?

Health care, hate, cops, women, congressmen, planes and Bolles.

Here's the Scoreboard for the week of Friday, Sept. 27:

Winners:

F-35 supporters — Vermont remains atop the Air Force's list to host a squadron of F-35s, according to a final environmental report released this week. While the top brass won't make a final decision for at least 30 days (starting next Friday), it's sure looking good for those hoping to replace the Vermont Guard's F-16s with the next-generation fighter jets. 

Binders full of (Democratic) women — Former governor Madeleine Kunin led an expertly choreographed roll-out this week of a new effort to reverse Vermont's glaring gender imbalance in its top political ranks. But Republican and Progressive women? They need not apply.

Welch leadership cred — U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and, um, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) held a Capitol Hill press conference Thursday calling on Congress to raise the nation's debt ceiling without any other political meddling. Welch earned his star turn by talking 185 of his colleagues into signing a letter calling for the same.

Geographic (not party) unity — Burlington's New and Old North Ends joined forces Monday night to break the Queen City's redistricting logjam. Northerly Progressives, Democrats and the council's lone Republican backed the new plan, while southerly independents and Democrats unsuccessfully opposed it.

Chittenden County cops — As the Burlington Free Press' omnipresent Mike Donoghue reported this week, Burlington Police Department deputy chief and alleged DUI-er Andi Higbee is heading back to work, while an independent investigator hired by the Winooski Police Department cleared Cpl. Jason Nokes of using excessive force against a mentally ill man. Both officers are still facing criminal charges.

Hate groups — 'Cuz they can freely rake in the cash from the state's VtSHARES charitable giving campaign.

The Bernie-Buster — Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) inspired/irritated the hell out of America for 21 hours this week with his epic, Seussian "filibuster" intended to, uh, do something about that Obamacare thing. As our friends over at the right-wing National Review pointed out, he was following the loquacious lead of our own Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose 8.5-hour non-filibuster three years ago also didn't delay a thing, either. 

Local talent — After conducting a national search for its next news director, Vermont Public Radio opted to promote from within, hiring veteran Statehouse reporter John Dillon for the gig. If you see a BMW bike with a VPR sticker flying up I-89 to the station's Colchester headquarters, be sure to throw a tote bag or mug at its rider.

Dan Bolles — As he proved with his exclusive interview with Joel Najman's beard, the Seven Days music editor has the rest of us reporters beat by a mile — or at least a whisker.

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Vermont Remains "Preferred Alternative" to Host F-35, Air Force Says

Posted By on Wed, Sep 25, 2013 at 6:47 PM

* UPDATED below with links to final Air Force report *

The Vermont Air National Guard is well positioned to host a squadron of F-35 fighter jets, an Air Force official said Wednesday. 

A final environmental impact statement prepared by the Air Force and received by the Vermont Guard Wednesday lists its South Burlington air base as the military's "preferred alternative" to host the planes, Air Force spokeswoman Kathy White said. While that means Burlington's odds of getting the planes are "favorable," White said, it's not a done deal. 

Once the final environmental impact statement is entered into the federal register next week, Air Force leaders will have 30 days or more to make a final decision. 

"The Burlington Air National Guard station is the preferred alternative in the final EIS to receive the F-35 operational air craft," White told Seven Days. "So that means that right now it looks favorable the Guard's first operational F-35 will be stationed there."

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This Week's Issue: Methadone, Molly and More

Posted By on Wed, Sep 25, 2013 at 5:13 PM

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Grab your favorite pumpkin-flavored coffee drink — that little chill in the morning means fall is here, and the first Seven Days of the season hit the streets today. Here's what you'll find for news and politics this week:

Pick up this week's issue in print, online or on the app.

This week's cover image by the late Stephen Huneck is courtesy of the Stephen Huneck Gallery. See this week's cover story about the future of Dog Mountain.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

VT Atty. Gen. Sorrell Calls on FDA to Regulate e-Cigarettes Like Tobacco

Posted By on Tue, Sep 24, 2013 at 2:39 PM

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On Tuesday, Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell signed onto a letter sent by 38 other attorneys general around the country who are calling on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate electronic cigarettes, or "e-cigarettes," as tobacco products under the federal Tobacco Control Act.

The battery-powered devices deliver a vaporized hit of nicotine that many smokers describe as similar in taste and feel to tobacco cigarettes, without the smoke, odor or — their manufacturers claim — deadly chemicals. Many longtime smokers credit e-cigarettes for helping them reduce or even eliminate their conventional tobacco habit entirely.

However, public health officials have expressed growing alarm in recent years about the rise of e-cigarette use among children and teenagers. Unlike traditional cigarettes, e-cigs are not currently regulated as tobacco products in the United States, thus allowing their sale to minors.

As Sorrell noted in his Tuesday press release, the U.S. Surgeon General has warned that the nicotine in e-cigarettes is still highly addictive and has immediate biochemical effects on the brain and body, and can be toxic in high doses. Sorrell also noted that the lack of regulation of e-cigarettes, both at the state and federal level, "puts youth at risk of developing a lifelong addiction to a potentially dangerous product that could also act as a gateway to using other tobacco products."

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Seasonal Workers and Airport Vendors are Issues in Livable Wage Hearing

Posted By on Tue, Sep 24, 2013 at 10:38 AM


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Just moments after the Burlington City Council voted on a new redistricting plan last night, its members dove headfirst into an even thornier issue: the city's livable wage ordinance.

For the last several months, the council’s three-member ordinance committee has been consulting with employers, city agencies, nonprofit organizations and the public to hammer out a set of amendments to a city law originally passed in 2001, ordinance committee chair Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) explained last night.

As envisioned, the ordinance was meant to guarantee a livable wage to employees of the city or any company with which it contracts. Right now, Burlington defines “livable” as $13.94 an hour for companies that offer health insurance and $15.83 for those that don't.

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