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Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Vermont-Based Feds Pursue Fraud Claims Against Health Records Company

Posted By on Tue, Mar 29, 2022 at 9:54 PM

U.S. Attorney for Vermont Nikolas Kerest - U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE
  • U.S. Department of Justice
  • U.S. Attorney for Vermont Nikolas Kerest
Federal prosecutors in Vermont are pursuing yet another electronic health records company for false claims related to its medical records software.

Newly unsealed court records show that a former executive of Modernizing Medicine filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the Boca Raton, Fla., company and its cofounders, Daniel Cane and Dr. Michael Sherling, in 2017. Earlier this month, the U.S. Attorney’s Office informed the court that it would take up the whistleblower’s case.

The complaint alleged that ModMed’s patient records software didn’t work as purported, the company cheated federal certification tests and created incentives for doctors in ways that violated federal anti-kickback laws.

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Friday, March 18, 2022

Projecting Millions in Losses, Vermont's Largest Hospitals Ask for Rate Increases

Posted By on Fri, Mar 18, 2022 at 5:31 PM

  • Courtesy of University of Vermont Medical Center
Vermont’s three largest hospitals are projecting tens of millions of dollars in losses this year amid rising labor costs and record inflation. They want help covering their budget gaps and have asked state regulators for permission to demand higher payments from commercial insurance companies.

Their requests, if approved, could substantially increase the cost of health care in Vermont.

“Please remember the Vermonters who are paying these staggering bills,” Sara Teachout, director of government affairs at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont, told regulators at a hearing on Thursday.

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Thursday, March 17, 2022

State Regulators Approve New Surgical Center — But Restrict Its Offerings

Posted By on Thu, Mar 17, 2022 at 7:33 PM

  • Sarah Cronin
The Green Mountain Care Board has approved a new independent surgical center that, if built, will offer another alternative to Vermont’s overburdened hospital system.

But the board will not allow the Collaborative Surgery Center to perform the full slate of procedures it had requested, at least initially. The center will instead be restricted to four “core” specialties — orthopedics; ear, nose, and throat; urology; and dental — and will need regulatory approval to expand any further, according to a ruling published Wednesday.

The ruling, which included more than two dozen other conditions, was endorsed by three of the board's five members, who questioned whether the surgical center could responsibly integrate more specialities.

"We are concerned that, given its limited staff and facility size, [the center] will be stretched too thin if it seeks to broaden its scope," read a majority opinion signed by Robin Lunge, Tom Pelham and Thom Walsh.

The board's two other members, Jessica Holmes and chair Kevin Mullin, agreed the center should be approved. But they said limiting the center's offerings may encourage it to focus more on money-making specialities and less on the equally necessary but less profitable procedures.

Susan Ridzon, executive director of the independent doctors' advocacy group Health First, is one of two proposed owners for the new center. She told Seven Days on Thursday that she and her business partner, Liz Hunt, were reviewing the board’s conditions to “determine their effect on the project’s feasibility.” Ridzon declined to elaborate, saying she would have more to say publicly in the coming weeks.

The board's ruling comes as part of Vermont's controversial "certificate of need" process, which requires hospitals and other health care providers to seek approval before building new facilities.

Proponents of the regulatory hurdle say it keeps health care costs down by preventing unnecessary duplication of services. But critics say it favors large hospitals at the expense of smaller, upstart organizations, limiting patients' options.

The decision marks the second time in recent years that the board has used the process to limit procedures at a free-standing surgical center.
The board also previously prevented the Green Mountain Surgery Center from expanding beyond the handful of procedure areas it now offers, ruling that it had to seek another round of approval. A legal challenge to that ruling ultimately failed in the Vermont Supreme Court.

The new surgical center — a 9,000-square-foot, $5 million facility — would have four operating rooms and would be located right next door to the Green Mountain Surgery Center in Colchester. The two centers would have different owners but would share a corridor and some space.

Leaders of the Collaborative Surgery Center said in an application last summer that their proposed facility could be up and running within 18 months of approval.

They envisioned performing 2,000 outpatient surgeries a year at a far lower cost than Vermont hospitals, noting that the Green Mountain Surgery Center saved the system an estimated $5.3 million in fiscal year 2020. The certificate of need seeks to codify such savings by requiring the center to charge commercial insurers less than any Vermont hospital.

To prove there was demand for another surgical center — a key tenet of the certificate of need process — they pointed to the substantial surgical backlogs and wait times for appointments at Vermont's hospitals.

That included the University of Vermont Medical Center, which was forced to close its outpatient operating and procedure rooms at the Fanny Allen campus in late 2020 after a mysterious odor began sickening employees. (The medical center has since reopened those rooms and is now proposing one of its own outpatient surgical centers.)
Ridzon and Hunt said the Collaborative Surgery Center center would, at the very least, need to perform surgeries from the four core specialities to be financially viable.

But they hoped that the board would also allow them to offer the many hundreds of other procedures approved by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a flexibility that they said would prove useful given the quickly-changing landscape of health care.

The three care board members who denied that request said they didn't have enough proof that the center's leaders' "business judgments" would align with the needs of the state's health care system.

"We invite [the center] to request the ability to host procedures and surgeries in additional specialties as soon as it can demonstrate a need beyond its general preference for flexibility," the regulators wrote. 

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Wednesday, March 9, 2022

UVM Medical Center to Help Build Apartment Complex for Employees

Posted By on Wed, Mar 9, 2022 at 5:36 PM

University of Vermont Medical Center - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • University of Vermont Medical Center
Vermont’s largest hospital is working with a local developer to build 61 apartments for its employees.

The University of Vermont Medical Center says it is investing $2.8 million into a soon-to-be-constructed apartment building on Market Street in South Burlington. The Snyder Braverman Development Company will own and operate the building and plans to break ground in the coming weeks.

UVM Medical Center leaders say the first-of-its-kind arrangement will preserve the apartments for hospital staff for at least the next 10 years in an attempt to attract new workers to the area.

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Monday, March 7, 2022

UVM Medical Center Declines to Recognize Resident Union

Posted By on Mon, Mar 7, 2022 at 7:17 PM

  • Courtesy of University of Vermont Medical Center
The University of Vermont Medical Center has declined to voluntarily recognize a group of physician residents seeking to form a union, a decision that will force the doctors-in-training to pursue a formal vote.

The 350 or so residents at the Burlington hospital asked for recognition last week after more than two-thirds signed up in support of joining the Committee of Interns and Residents, a New York-based union that represents more than 20,000 residents and fellows nationwide.

The hospital informed the group of its decision on Monday. In a statement to Seven Days, the hospital said it respected the right of its residents to "decide whether they want to join a union."

“We have encouraged the union seeking to represent our residents to work with the National Labor Relations Board on a process that will give everyone a voice," the statement read.

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Thursday, March 3, 2022

Vermont Will Lift School Masking Guidance on March 14

Posted By on Thu, Mar 3, 2022 at 6:01 PM

Education Secretary Dan French - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Education Secretary Dan French
Updated 6:51 p.m.

As of March 14, Vermont will no longer recommend that students and staff of all ages and vaccination status wear masks in K-12 schools, officials said on Thursday. That will align schools with the state's guidance — or lack thereof — for all Vermonters.

While the state is eliminating its mask guidance, officials said that individual school districts can ultimately impose their own rules. And in districts that do away with masks, students have the right to wear face coverings — with "no stigma surrounding that" — if they choose to, Gov. Phil Scott said at his weekly press conference on Thursday.

"We need to remember, a person who wears a mask has their own good reason to do so, and respect that," said Patsy Kelso, the state epidemiologist, who stood in Thursday for Health Commissioner Mark Levine.

The decision also applies to school buses, according to Education Secretary Dan French, "since masks are no longer required on school buses as a result of a recent change in federal regulation."

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Friday, February 18, 2022

Despite State Guidance, Some Highly Vaxxed School Districts Will Keep Masks On

Posted By on Fri, Feb 18, 2022 at 1:32 PM

  • Sarah Cronin
On Tuesday, Gov. Phil Scott announced that schools could stop requiring masks on February 28 if at least 80 percent of their students were vaccinated against COVID-19.

"The fact is, our kids need to get back to normal," Scott said at his weekly press conference. "They've been through a lot. So we should begin this transition as soon as possible."

"In the very near future, if all goes to plan, we intend to recommend lifting the mask requirement recommendation altogether," he added.

But in the days following the announcement, some superintendents in the most highly vaxxed parts of the state — Chittenden and Washington counties — have signaled that they will proceed cautiously when it comes to ditching the face coverings.
All six of the schools in the Champlain Valley School District — which draws students from Charlotte, Hinesburg, Shelburne and Williston — have vaccination rates near or above 80 percent, according to superintendent Rene Sanchez. Leading the way is Champlain Valley Union High School, where about 91.5 percent students have had at least two COVID-19 vaccine jabs.

But with a number of unanswered questions about the guidance, all students and staff in the district will remain masked when they return from school break on February 28, Sanchez wrote in a letter to families on Wednesday. Part of the concern, Sanchez wrote, is that the date for lifting masking requirements coincides with a return from vacation, a time when many students will be traveling.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2022

It's Official: Vermont Patients Wait Too Long, State Report Shows

Posted By on Wed, Feb 16, 2022 at 10:04 AM

  • Sean Metcalf
Updated at 4:25 p.m.

A state investigation into medical appointment delays has found that patients are waiting an average of two months to see a specialist in Vermont, far longer than the most recent national figures, according to a report released on Wednesday.

The average wait exceeded 100 days in some specialities, while at least one clinic was booking more than a year out.

The report follows a monthslong investigation that began after a Seven Days cover story detailed lengthy delays for care at the University of Vermont Medical Center. More than two dozen people told the paper that they had struggled to get timely appointments in recent years despite suffering from painful and debilitating ailments.

A team of state officials and regulators led the probe. Their findings represent the most comprehensive assessment of wait times in state history — and paint a bleak picture of Vermont’s health care system.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Schools With High Vax Rates Can Lift Mask Requirements Soon

Posted By on Tue, Feb 15, 2022 at 9:13 PM

Gov. Phil Scott at a December press conference - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Gov. Phil Scott at a December press conference
With COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations dropping, Vermont is putting into place long-delayed guidance that says schools can stop requiring masks when 80 percent of students are vaccinated.

The move, which takes effect on February 28, is aimed at alleviating some of the social anxiety that students have experienced since the pandemic began two years ago, Gov. Phil Scott said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. He added that he hopes to soon lift mask requirements in schools altogether.

“Our kids need to get back to normal,” Scott said.

The governor said that he’d heard of schools where students are not allowed to use the library, talk with others at lunch, or play without masks on the playground. Mental health professionals, parents and students themselves have reported that last year's prolonged period of virtual instruction, and the continuing uncertainty and isolation of the pandemic, has been bad for students' psychological well-being.

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Monday, February 14, 2022

UVM Nurses to Get 20 Percent Raises Over Two Years

Posted By on Mon, Feb 14, 2022 at 1:13 PM

Deb Snell, president of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, speaking last year - COLIN FLANDERS ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Colin Flanders ©️ Seven Days
  • Deb Snell, president of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, speaking last year
University of Vermont Medical Center nurses will receive 20 percent raises over the next two years under a wage agreement aimed at stabilizing the hospital's workforce.

The deal, approved Friday, will immediately bump nursing salaries 10 percent before increasing them 5 percent in October and another 5 percent a year later. The medical center will also pay $5,000 retention bonuses to unionized technical employees, excluding imaging technicians, who reached a separate deal last year.

The agreement comes two months before the Burlington hospital and its nurses’ union plan to begin negotiating the rest of their contact, which expires in July. The parties took the unusual step of hashing out wages up front because of the hospital's prolonged staffing crisis, they said at a press conference on Monday.

“This was unchartered ground for both sides,” UVM Medical Center president and chief operating officer Dr. Stephen Leffler said. “Both of us had to take some leap of faith to do this, but I'm very happy that we were able to work with them getting these wages out now. We're hopeful they'll help retain our staff, help us recruit new staff, and build strong momentum going into the rest of negotiations.”

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