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Heart Attack Heaven 

Inside Track

Bernie Sanders

Published May 26, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

The first public shot in the new cross-border battle between Vermont and New York was fired this week from atop Burlington's Hospital Hill. The target: the hearts, rather than the minds, of the New Yorkers across Lake Champlain.

Starting next month, Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh is getting into the heart business. CVPH will begin offering coronary angioplasty to upstate New York patients. Later this summer CVPH will start doing open-heart surgery. No longer will upstate New Yorkers have to cross the lake or travel down country for surgery.

Great news, eh?

Not if you're Fletcher Allen Health Care and have been raking in $18.5 million a year from New York heart patients.

On Monday, our beloved Mary Fanny kicked off a yearlong $900,000 marketing campaign to remind the folks across the pond in particular that New York hearts have long been kept beating by Vermont heart surgeons. There'll be TV spots, newspaper ads and underwriting for public-radio stations.

The campaign, put together by an Ohio firm, is built around the punchline: "What would you do with a second chance?"

Six former Mary Fanny heart patients are featured; five are New Yorkers.

One of the weapons in CVPH's promotional arsenal is the hospital ratings provided online by HealthGrades Inc., a Colorado firm that issues hospital report cards at: www.healthgrades.org.

Plattsburgh's new heart center, you see, is a direct result of the hospital's recent alliance with St. Peter's in Albany. If you check St. Peter's HealthGrades inhospital mortality scores, say, for "Heart Attack," you'll find it gets top billing -- five stars!

Check the Mary Fanny's heart-attack mortality score and -- yikes! -- one star, the lowest score in Vermont. Nurse!

In an attempt to deal with HealthGrades head on, Fletcher Allen public affairs director Maria McClellan sat yours truly down with a couple heart surgeons Monday.

One, Dr. Frank Ittleman, is something of a living legend around Burlap. He's been cutting into hearts on the Hill for 24 years. We've met more people who've been under his knife than you can imagine.

"Plattsburgh will obviously capture patients who don't want to travel across the lake to Fletcher Allen and that's their decision," said Ittleman. "They have to offer quality work. If they do quality work, it's all the better for the patient population. Will it cut into our population?

"Of course," he said.

Frankie the Knife also told Seven Days that he recently spoke with a HealthGrades representative who told him that Fletcher Allen could "improve its score by contracting with HealthGrades for $105,000 a year."

Dr. Ittleman said he was told by the HealthGrades rep, "We will tear you down and build you up and make sure everything (i.e., risk factors) is captured properly, and you'll know which cases you should avoid and which cases you shouldn't [in order] to improve your performance."

That's not the kind of game a guy like Frankie the Knife, Burlington's top surgical blade, plays.

"I'm very passionate about this," Ittle-man told Seven Days, "because we have consistently over the years accepted these people and given them a second chance, and I would hate to have to compromise our posture for the sake of garnering a third star or a fifth star."

The guy's got a lot of heart, eh?

The McNeil Boot -- Seven Days has learned that the Douglas administration has dumped the state's chief union contract negotiator, and there's every indication Attorney Joe McNeil's affiliation with Burlington Mayor and Democratic candidate for governor Peter Clavelle is behind it. For years. Joltin' Joe's firm --

www.mcneilvt.com -- has held the city-attorney contract for Burlington. Joe's father did it before him.

McNeil confirmed Tuesday that he'd gotten word from Commissioner of Personnel Cindy Laware that the Douglas administration would no longer need his services. Joe's been representing the state in labor negotiations since 1998. Yes, he is a damn Democrat.

"I have very much enjoyed my service," McNeil told Seven Days. "I'm proud for what I accomplished. If the opportunity came up to do it again, I'd be happy to be considered."

Would January be too soon for you, Joe?

Sen. Ready II? -- With veteran Addison County State Sen. Gary Gossens stepping down, one of the county's two senate seats lies open.

Seven Days has learned that Ethan Ready, the 28-year-old son of former Addison County Senator and current State Auditor Elizabeth Ready, is seriously considering taking a shot.

To say Ethan has politics in his blood is an understatement. As the son of Chainsaw Liz, Buzzsaw's been raised on the political campaign trail. Young Ethan holds the unofficial state record for the erection of campaign lawn signs. He's currently working as a union organizer on the staff of the VSEA, the state employees' union.

Asked Tuesday if he was considering following in mama's political footsteps, Buzzsaw told Seven Days, "I'll be doing what I can to keep this seat in good hands."

Doing what he can?

Stay tuned. Could be the evolution of a Montpelier dynasty.

Moving On -- As always, a chunk of lawmakers decided to call it quits as the biennium wraps up. Top of the list this year is House Speaker Walter Freed, the millionaire from Dorset with his own personal motorcade of fancy cars.

We'll miss the vintage T-Bird and the matching black-and-white Corvette sportscars the Duke of Dorset parked in the Speaker's prime reserved spot.

In the 1990s, Freed led the ragged, powerless GOP caucus as the minority leader. It was a hopeless task, but Walter appeared to have time to burn. He was a millionaire oil/gasoline merchant with the infamous cut-rate tobacco shop on the New York State line. He had time on his hands. Politics for Walter was day care.

When Freed moved into the Speaker's office, it marked the first time since 1985 that the hired-gun corporation lobbyists and the Speaker of the House were on the same wavelength.

Freed rose to the podium on the 2000 backlash sparked by civil unions. Dozens of backlash candidates ran under the GOP label, and enough were elected to throw the Democrats off their House pedestal. It might be said that Walter was the state's leading beneficiary of the recognition of rights for homosexuals.

In 2001, Speaker Freed personally broke a tie vote to assure House passage of a bill repealing civil unions. It went nowhere in the Democrat-controlled Senate, but it demonstrated that Freed knew where his power came from.

Other than that, it's hard to remember one significant Walter Freed achievement. Gov. Jim Douglas' praise for Walter at a recent press conference focused exclusively on partisan achievement -- Freed's "leadership" in building the minority Republican caucus into a majority.

History may well record that Walter Freed's greatest accomplishment as Speaker of the Vermont House was the lack of accomplishment.

Of course, to some, the fact that the Duke of Dorset held the line and stymied progressive initiatives on health care, energy, agriculture and the environment makes him worthy of a standing ovation!

The state's two largest investor-owned electric utilities -- CVPS and GMP -- will surely miss Speaker Freed. So will the tobacco lobbyists, the pharmaceutical lobbyists and the Chamber of Commerce. Hankies, please!

According to the GOP's colorful and peppy assistant majority leader Rick Hube, Freed wanted to pull the chute and drop out of politics back in 2002. Ricky the Rock says he and GOP consultant George McNeil had to twist Speaker Freed's arm to get him to run. Here's a guy who finally reached the top and wanted out?

In the 2002 election, the GOP's dominating House majority shriveled. Freed held on by a whisker.

And now a few of the one-issue Republicans elected in 2000 to repeal civil unions -- folks like Rep. Carl Haas of Rutland and Loren Shaw of Derby -- have gotten tired of the legislative grind. They're not running again, either. Not enough Old Testament work to keep them busy, eh?

The fact is, the Vermont Democratic Party will have to run the most pathetic, useless and stupid legislative campaign in history to avoid taking back the House and the Speaker's office.

Of course, in politics as in life, anything is possible.

King George! -- Congratulations to veteran State Rep. George Schiavone of Shelburne. He's Vermont's new Republican National Committeeman, defeating Jack Lindley at Saturday's GOP conclave at Montpeculiar High School. Very lively affair.

Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie gave a poignant address to the packed house. Doobie-Doo is definitely not cut from any mold. To hear him talk tenderly to an auditorium full of anti-communists about his visit to Castro's Cuba as well as Ground Zero, and then strike the heartstrings with memories of his mother's death and a moment of silence for the dead GIs in Iraq was... well, you just had to be there.

Schiavone replaces Skip Vallee. George was a leader of the God-fearing opposition in the anti-civil unions Holy War of 2000. George is as nice an arch-conservative as you'll ever meet. But the job is supposed to be about raising money, not religious consciousness. Best wishes, King George!

Gasoline Vallee, millionaire owner of a northern Vermont fuel distributorship and a chain of mini-marts, loves to hobnob. It's in his blood. He occupied Vermont's boy seat on the RNC for five years -- incumbent Sara Gear defeated Rep. Connie Houston, House Majority Leader, for the girl seat -- and emerged as a big-time Republican Party fundraiser. How much dough has Vallee raised?

"Oh, gosh, I don't know," replied Gasoline sheepishly. He is, however, an official "Bush Ranger," meaning the Skipster already collected more than $200,000 for the reelection campaign of our presidential nightmare.

Skip, who, like Freed, makes his millions in the oil business, will lead the Vermont delegation to the Republican National Convention in the Big Apple.

In his farewell remarks to the delegates Saturday, Vallee acknowledged the crucial importance of "opposition research" in political campaigns.

He told Seven Days later that he had helped the RNC learn more about the background of Howard Dean, once Ho-Ho emerged as a presidential player last year.

"I was keenly interested in the Howard Dean campaign," said Skip. "I tried to assist in any way I could in providing a complete public record of the lengthy tenure of Howard Brush Dean III."

Indeed, opposition research played a significant role in Dean's downfall. Things he said years ago came back to bite him, and the Dean Team couldn't handle it.

In fact, Vermont Republicans value opposition research so highly that they've installed an accomplished oppo-research guy as state chairman of their party.

James Barnett contributed mightily to Gov. Douglas' winning effort in 2002 by conducting a surgical examination of Democrat Douglas Racine's record. Mad Dog Barnett made the name "Racine" synonymous with "flip-flopper." And you can bet he's working on Democrat Peter Clavelle's past.

"I think it's important," said Barnett, "that people be held accountable for what they say and do."

Remember that line, will ya?

One thing Barnett never does is call Burlington's Democratic Mayor Peter Clavelle a Democrat. It's always "Progressive Pete," despite Clavelle's very public party-switch in 2002.

In a Seven Days interview Tuesday, Barnett happily roasted Vermont Democrats for having Clavelle, along with Rep. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, headline a fundraiser for the Democratic Party's Take Back the House Campaign.

"One's a Progressive and one's a Socialist!" noted Barnett with glee.

Get that dog a bone, will ya?

More Campaign Trail -- Progressive Rep. Steve Hingtgen's entry into the Lite-Gov race certainly gums up the best-laid plans of Democrats Cheryl Rivers and Jan Backus. Hingtgen is running an educational campaign with no hope of victory. Steve may not pull the 25 percent Progressive Anthony Pollina did in 2002, but almost every vote he pulls will come out of the Democrat's hide.

C'est la vie. It's another lucky campaign for Doobie-Doo. But the Democratic women aren't giving up.

Rivers appeared on CNBC via satellite from WCAX-TV last week to offer her expertise on pharmaceutical drug prices. And Backus is holding a Washington, D.C., fundraiser Wednesday evening at Bobby Vans Steakhouse.

The invitation, signed by her Washington-based political-consultant daughter Jenny Backus, points out the "Top Five Reasons" to donate.

Number 5 was: "Vermont Law allows corporate donations to both candidates and the party. You can write a CORPORATE check to Jan Backus for Lieutenant Governor for up to $400 OR you can write a CORPORATE check to the Vermont State Party up to $2000."

A belated Happy Mother's Day, Jan!

Candidate Rivers told Seven Days she's already had one Washington fundraiser and has another scheduled for June 17. It's sponsored, said Rivers, by John Moyers, Joan Mulhern and Bernie Sanders.

Rivers sure sounds confident the race can be won despite Hingtgen's spoiler possibilities. If Hingtgen, say, only drew half as well as Pollina did in 2002, the Democrat would have a shot. And Rivers says she's picked up Prog support since Stevie's announcement, though she's not naming names just yet.

At Saturday's Democratic State Convention in Barre, Rivers got the big crowd going when she took on the Republican incumbent directly.

Unlike Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, said Rivers, she won't be going on trips to China and Cuba when she's lieutenant governor. Instead, she said, she'll be visiting "Peru, Jamaica, Londonderry and taking a swing up though Holland."

And Rivers also promised that as Lite-Gov she sure won't be giving the keynote address at the Vermont Right to Life Convention like Dubie did.

That brought 'em out of their seats.

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About The Author

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne, 1949-2009, wrote the weekly political column "Inside Track," which originated in the Vanguard Press in the mid 1980s; he brought it to Seven Days in 1995. He retired it shortly before his death in January, 2009. We all miss him.


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