Updated below with comment from Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson, who says the Newsweek story is inaccurate and "inflammatory."
How bungled was the rollout of Vermont Health Connect, the state's trouble-plagued health insurance exchange?
In a word, argues veteran reporter and New York Times alum Lynnley Browning, very. But Browning takes a full 3,400 words to make that point in a brutal new story published on Newsweek's website Thursday evening.
In it, Browning writes that Vermont state officials "glossed over ominous warning signs and Keystone Cops-like planning" as they worked with contractor CGI Federal to build the federally mandated exchange.
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.”
We apologize in advance for using the words "Bernie Sanders" and "Playboy" in the same sentence, but here goes:
Sanders, Vermont's independent U.S. senator, is the subject of the storied Playboy interview in this month's issue. Not that we subscribe or anything. We just heard about it from a friend.
Interviewing Sanders for the men's mag was writer and activist Jonathan Tasini, who previously interviewed Paul Krugman for Playboy. His history as a gadfly political candidate in New York is reminiscent of Sanders' own early electoral outings. Tasini challenged and lost to then-senator Hillary Clinton in 2006 and scandal-plagued Congressman Charles Rangel in 2010.
Nevertheless, the Vermonter says, Americans "are hungering for a voice out there," and "it would be tempting to try to raise issues and demand discussion on issues that are not being talked about..."
Despite the down-and-out city's efforts to shed its unfortunate reputation, which we covered in a 2012 cover story, Rutland just got another black eye: According to internal documents, the Rutland City Police Department has been plagued by officer misconduct, a culture of fear, and favoritism.
Chittenden resident and VPR reporter Nina Keck paints a gloomy picture of the department — but it's not the first time the Rutland cops have made headlines. As former Seven Days news editor Andy Bromage reported in 2011, Rutland police Sgt. David Schauwecker was charged in 2010 with removing pornography seized as evidence for his own use, and then lying to investigators to deflect attention. Another patrolman resigned after allegedly using improper force on a man handcuffed in a holding cell.
Apparently, things haven't changed much. Former police officer Chris Kiefer-Cioffi — who spent 27 years in the department — told Keck the "good ol' boy club is running rampant in that department," and alleges supervisors knew about misconduct and, in some cases, participated in it.
The troubled department has been under the leadership of Chief Jim Baker since January 2012; Baker stepped in following the controversial ousting of a former chief. Keck reports that while Baker was "shocked" by the state of the department when he took over, not everyone thinks the new chief has done enough to right the listing ship. Keck reports:
As Baker works on repairing the department, allegations of favoritism continue. Top Rutland City police officials, including Baker, were sued earlier this year by former officer Andrew Todd, who alleges he was forced out of his job because of widespread management problems.
Todd left the police to become a state trooper just as Baker arrived in 2012. According to the lawsuit, Todd, who was the only African American on the force, complained several times to supervisors Geno and Tucker about the alleged unethical and racist behavior of two fellow officers.
According to Keck, city officials stand behind Baker and the changes he's making in the department. But as Keck reports, "whether those changes occur fast enough or restore the public trust remains to be seen."
Vermont Public Radio's Bob Kinzel is totally a Negative Nancy.
At least, that's the conclusion a Washington, D.C. consulting firm drew in April after the state of Vermont paid the company $18,000 for intel on reporters covering the roll-out of the state's new health care exchange.
The Vermont Press Bureau's Peter Hirschfeld had the details in a shocking Sunday story in the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus outlining the lengths to which Gov. Peter Shumlin's administration has gone to manipulate press coverage of the exchange, called Vermont Health Connect.
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."
"The Rutland Herald is not for sale," the Rutland Herald's Gordon Dritschilo reported in Wednesday's paper. It's just the damn boss starting rumors again:
Publisher R. John Mitchell said Tuesday he may have inadvertently started rumors to that effect while discussing plans to sell the building. The building is for sale, listed by Coldwell Banker Watson Realty for $995,000.
The news comes a month after the Mitchell family sold the Barre headquarters of its other paper, the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, and moved its operations to a new downtown rental. The Gannett-owned Burlington Free Press has also put most of its College Street facility up for sale; that property is listed as "under agreement" on the Freeps' broker's website.
The Herald has called the building home since the mid-1930s. Mitchell tells Dritschilo the paper will remain in downtown Rutland.
Read the full Herald story about the Herald here.
Middlebury College students marked the 12th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks yesterday with a display of 2,977 miniature American flags in front of Mead Chapel. The memorial, organized by the school's College Republicans and College Democrats groups, has happened every 9/11 for nearly 10 years, according to the Middlebury Campus.
This year, though, things went awry.
As we noted last week (quoting the great Chris Cillizza), "No politician goes to Iowa by accident." The same generally holds true for New Hampshire — unless you're already in Vermont and you really, really need to get to Boston.
So former governor Howard Dean's trip to Iowa Wednesday and his plans to visit New Hampshire next month have gotten bored, horse-race-loving political types (I admit it! I'm one of them!) into a tizzy.
Of course, the less-often-stated corollary to the Cillizza maxim is this: "Most politicians who go to Iowa just want people to think they'll run for president." In our view, Dean falls squarely in that camp. Dude's looking for some press coverage — and he knows that's the way to get it (see: this blog post).
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