Thursday, October 31, 2013

Acknowledging Health Website Failures, Shumlin Extends Deadline

Posted By on Thu, Oct 31, 2013 at 4:40 PM

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Acknowledging that a poorly functioning website was making it impossible to hit the state's enrollment goals, Gov. Peter Shumlin this afternoon announced he was extending the deadline for small businesses and individuals to sign up for Vermont Health Connect from Jan. 1 to March 31. In the meantime, they will be allowed to continue using their existing plans. 

Additionally, Shumlin has deputized the two insurers offering plans in the market, Blue Cross Blue Shield Vermont and MVP Health Care, to act as "agents" of Vermont Heath Connect: Instead of signing up directly on the bug-ridden state website, businesses can sign up through the insurance companies, which will then register the plans with the exchange.

"These two additional options should give Vermonters going into the holiday season some (assurance) knowing there is no way they will lose insurance on January 1," Shumlin said during a press conference while standing in front of a phalanx of lawmakers, insurers and administration officials.

The announcement represents a dramatic reversal for the administration, which had been holding to the Jan. 1 deadline in the face of growing concerns about the website. 

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

This Week's Issue: Hunting Trouble, Prison Sex and an M.I.A. Delegation

Posted By on Wed, Oct 30, 2013 at 5:11 PM

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While you're putting together your Halloween getup tonight — bonus candy for anyone in a homemade F-35 costume — give this week's news and politics stories in Seven Days a read. Here's what you'll find.

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

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

In Burlington City Hall, Eyes on the Ball

Posted By on Tue, Oct 29, 2013 at 5:14 PM

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Two conflicts played themselves out more than 1000 miles apart from each other last night. 

In Burlington City Hall, friends and foes of the F35 were making their last-ditch appeals to the city councilors, who by the end of the night rejected two anti-F35 resolutions with 10-4 and 11-3 votes.

In St. Louis, Mo., two teams were both seeking their third win in the World Series. Ultimately, the Red Sox prevailed with a 3-1 win over the Cardinals.

But Councilor Norman Blais (D-Ward 6), probably wasn't surprised by either outcome, because he managed to have his eyes on both the meeting and the game. 

In a photo taken at the meeting and posted publicly on Facebook by a man named Ben Eastwood, Blais' laptop screen shows a man swinging a bat. "I found it almost by accident when I was trying to zoom in on the map they were handing around the council and noticed what they were watching," Eastwood writes in an email to Seven Days.  

Could Blais have clicked on the browser window by accident, or was the councilor tuning out the F35 debate to watch the game? Neither, apparently.

"I didn’t do it accidentally, I wanted to find out what the score was," Blais says candidly.

Elaborating, the councilor explains, "I didn't even have to stop listening to the discussion. I clicked on [the window showing the game], looked at the score, and then continued listening to the meeting."

Photo courtesy of Ben Eastwood. 

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Morning Read: Housing Trust to Overhaul Motel for Emergency Housing

Posted By on Tue, Oct 29, 2013 at 11:06 AM

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In fiscal year 2012, the 59-room Econo Lodge on Shelburne Road collected $184,732 from state coffers in exchange for housing homeless Vermonters with nowhere else to go. The motel was one of the top recipients of state funds for that service, which officials say is a last resort when shelter beds are full. 

Now the arrangement appears to be permanent. As VT Digger reported yesterday, the Champlain Housing Trust is converting the former Econo Lodge into an emergency housing facility called Harbor Place. Alicia Freese writes that CHT's plan goes well beyond rebranding the roadside motel:

There’s one key difference between Harbor Place and the state-administered program, according to Chris Donnelly, director of community relations for Champlain Housing Trust: “Under the current system, someone who was accessing the motel voucher program would be put into the Econo Lodge and then they’d wake up in the morning and try to get on with the rest of their life,” Donnelly said. “In this program, there will be services to help them right on site.”

The Econo Lodge overhaul comes after months of debate about how best to house Vermont's homeless population, particularly when shelter beds are full. Spending on motel vouchers spiked dramatically in recent years, reaching $4 million in fiscal year 2013, and lawmakers have been sharply critical of that spending. 

"Once we make that one-night investment, that money’s just gone," Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) told Seven Days last December

In response, the Legislature capped model spending at $1.5 million for FY2014, and the Department of Children and Families constructed a point system — which was subsequently amended — to limit those who received free motel rooms. Harbor Place, Freese reports, is designed to partially fill the void created by the downsizing. 

The Econo Lodge overhaul is happening fast. Digger reports that after Monday's $1.85 million sale, CHT plans to reopen Harbor Place within a week. Most of the funding is coming from a Vermont Community Loan Fund loan, and CHT has already signed on at least 10 partners in the effort, including the state and Fletcher Allen Health Care.

It's a deal that state officials can happily endorse. DCF is reserving 30 rooms at the former motel for its voucher program, for which CHT will charge the state just $38 per room a night. DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone estimates the new deal will save the state roughly $250,000 a year. 

And he's pleased about more than just the savings. Yacavone told Freese that Harbor Place has the potential to provide much better service for its residents than a motel ever could. 

“By bringing the [case] manager in, it makes it look entirely different than just putting someone up in a hotel,” he told Digger. “That’s a really exciting opportunity to provide wraparound services to families in a transitional housing unit.”

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Burlington City Council Shoots Down Two Anti-F-35 Resolutions

Posted By on Tue, Oct 29, 2013 at 10:25 AM

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Seated before a raucous, city-hall crowd of 400 that didn’t always obey rules limiting the debate, city councilors last night voted down two resolutions opposing plans to base the F-35s at Burlington International Airport.

The first resolution, calling for the city to actively oppose locating F-35s at the Burlington-owned airport, was rejected 10-4. Councilors Max Tracy (P-Ward 2), Kevin Worden (D-Ward 1), Vince Brennan (P-Ward 3) and Rachel Siegel (P-Ward 3) voted for the resolution.

The council seemed swayed by an opinion issued in recent days by City Attorney Eileen Blackwood, who said Burlington does not have the legal right to ban the military from using any specific aircraft, and could be held financially liable for violating leases with the federal government if it tried to restrict the Air National Guard’s operations.

“There is no way I am willing to put the city at risk for that liability,” said Councilor William “Chip” Mason (D-Ward 5).

The second resolution, which would have banned planes that are louder than 65 decibels or have crash rates higher those of the F-16 — standards the F-35 is expected to exceed — was rejected 11-3. Brennan, Tracy and Siegel voted in support.

BTV Aviation Director Gene Richards told the council the anti-noise resolution could jeopardize future efforts to lure other commercial airlines to the airport.

Concern for the future of BTV swayed Councilor Karen Paul (I-Ward 6) to vote against both resolutions.

“It’s possible that without the F-35 coming to Vermont, at some point the Vermont Air National Guard’s mission will become uncertain,” Paul said. “They are an integral partner of our airport, and the airport’s impact on the local community cannot be overstated...I must keep in mind my fiduciary responsibility to the city.”

Councilor Tom Ayres (D-Ward 7) said he was “appalled” by the F-35 and believed the next-generation fighter should be sent to the “scrapheap.” But he said he did not believe the council had the authority to make decisions about whether or not to host them — and voted against both resolutions.

“Military basing decisions ... are simply not the purview of a city council. They are the purview of the U.S. government and elected officials in Washington,” he said. “I am adamantly opposed to any future deployment of the F-35 in any form. It’s not a weapon that should be based in Burlington or anywhere else in the United States. It’s time we took the battle back to the federal government and Congress.”

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Green Mountain Police State? Vermont's Spy Guy to Speak at ACLU Event

Posted By on Tue, Oct 29, 2013 at 9:54 AM

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South Pomfret resident Bill Arkin isn't shocked by recent revelations about the worldwide and domestic spying operations of U.S. intelligence agencies.

That's because he and colleague Dana Priest reported extensively on privacy invasions by U.S. espionage agencies in an investigative series, "Top Secret America," published in the Washington Post more than three years ago.

Arkin and Priest showed how the national-security state had expanded exponentially in the years following the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. They reported, for example, that more than 3000 government organizations and private companies are engaged in "homeland security" activities in 10,000 locations around the United States, six of them in Vermont.

Arkin will update and analyze his findings as they relate to Vermonters and millions of other Americans at a conference on Wednesday in Montpelier. He's the featured speaker at the free, day-long event in the Pavilion Auditorium sponsored by the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Arkin's talk will focus on "the big national picture and how Vermont fits into it," he said in a telephone interview on Monday. He'll also be touting his newly published book, American Coup: How a Terrified Government Is Destroying the Constitution.

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Monday, October 28, 2013

Vermont Nonprofits Among the Swindled

Posted By on Mon, Oct 28, 2013 at 7:34 PM

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Three Vermont non-profit organizations reported to the Internal Revenue Service that they experienced significant financial losses due to theft in recent years, according to an investigation published by the Washington Post on Sunday.

The Post analyzed federal tax filings from 2008 to 2012 submitted by organizations across the country and found more than 1000 nonprofits reported a “significant diversion” of assets, primarily as a result of theft or embezzlement, which drained an estimated $500 million from their collective coffers.

The Post found three Vermont organizations in that category and made their records available in a database.

White River Junction-based Twin Pines Housing Trust, which provides low-income housing, the American Legion Post 29 in Readsboro and the South Burlington-based Make-a-Wish Foundation of Vermont reported being victimized on their Federal Form 990s, which nonprofits provide the Internal Revenue Service. 

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Friday, October 25, 2013

Labor Groups Press Schools on Sodexo Benefits Cuts

Posted By on Fri, Oct 25, 2013 at 7:52 AM

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Update: At 11:15 a.m. on Friday, October 25, University of Vermont president Tom Sullivan sent an email to the school's faculty and staff with the news that "Sodexo employees will not experience changes in the current definition of employment status and associated benefits until further notice in order for the University to complete its analysis based on a full review of all relevant data and facts."

As reasons for the announcement, the president cited "a very tight timeframe" for affected employees to find health care; the "challenges" and "uncertainties" surrounding current health-care options; "The University’s obligation to complete its review of the proposed changes under the contract with Sodexo"; and the upcoming negotiations over a new contract with Sodexo ahead of the current one's expiration in June 2015.

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When Sodexo revealed last month that it was changing the definition of a full-time employee to someone who works an average of 30 hours per week — according to the rules of the Affordable Care Act — many cried foul at colleges around the state who subcontract their dining services to the multinational company.

Only full-timers are eligible for company benefits, so when the new policy takes effect on January 1, many seasonal employees stand to be stripped of their health and dental insurance, sick and vacation days, and retirement packages. On the campuses of the University of Vermont and the Vermont state colleges, two coalitions of staff, faculty, students and labor groups have sprung up demanding that the schools intervene.

When the UVM trustees convene this weekend, one of those groups will use a public comment period on Saturday morning to present a petition — directed at UVM president Tom Sullivan and vice president for finance Richard Cate, who negotiate the school’s dining services contract — with more than 1000 signatures.

Denise Youngblood, a history professor and president of United Academics, the school’s faculty union, will also address the trustees. In her talk, Youngblood says, she’ll ask the board to urge that Sullivan and Cate take advantage of a clause in the current contract that requires the school’s approval for any change Sodexo makes in its employees’ working conditions. The existing contract will expire after 2015. 

“We believe that UVM should live up to its proclaimed social justice values,” says Youngblood. “Every employee who works on this campus should have a fair benefits package. No UVM employees are being treated the way Sodexo employees are being treated.”

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The Scoreboard: This Week's Winners and Losers

Posted By on Fri, Oct 25, 2013 at 4:00 AM

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

Guns, missiles, fighter jets, free speech, steeples, contractors and... Bernie Sanders.

Here's the Scoreboard for the week of Friday, October 25: 

Winners:

Jack Lindley — The Republican party chairman is on the mend after a very close call. In our book — whether he keeps his leadership post or not — that makes him one serious winner. Runner-up losers: Those plotting to oust Lindley while he's still in the hospital. Can't it wait, fellas? 

Stealth missions — Remember that whole ICBM-destroying missile defense base proposed for the Vermont National Guard's Camp Ethan Allen? Yeah, that one. Though the Pentagon's top brass say they don't need an East Coast interceptor, the Missile Defense Agency quietly dispatched a five-man team to Jericho last week to check the place out, as the Burlington Free Press' Nicole Gaudiano reported Thursday.

Bernie buzz — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) kinda sorta claims he has no interest in running for president. But it was interesting that his campaign staffer, Ben Eisenberg, emailed reporters a link to an In These Times story Thursday in which his boss says, "I haven't ruled it out."

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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Shumlin Defends Implementation of Health Insurance Exchange, Sees Signs of Progress

Posted By on Thu, Oct 24, 2013 at 6:26 PM

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In his feistiest exchange with the press in months, Gov. Peter Shumlin on Thursday sought to reassure Vermonters that his administration is doing everything possible to remedy problems plaguing its new online health insurance portal.

But even as he expressed confidence that Vermont Health Connect's performance is improving every day, Shumlin avoided making specific promises about when the system would be fully functional.

"The bottom line is that I can't stand here truthfully, look you in the eye, and say, 'Hey, we've got this figured out right on a tight schedule to the moment, as we would with a road project,'" the governor told reporters at a press conference in the Pavilion State Office Building. "We're doing everything in our power to improve the structure that we have in place. I'm confident that we're going to get there. If we don't, I can assure you that we will have a path that will get us where we need to go."

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