News

Vermont Legal Aid and the Center for Medicare Advocacy are pleased to announce the settlement of McKee v. Azar, a case that was brought in federal court to ensure proper coverage of home health care services for a Medicare beneficiary with multiple chronic conditions.

Ms. Mckee, a Vermont resident, required skilled nursing visits to assess and treat her serious medical conditions. Medicare denied coverage, concluding that her condition was “stable” and therefore did not require skilled care. This was erroneous under the standard clarified in the Jimmo v. Sebelius settlement. In her lawsuit, Ms. McKee challenged the notion that her supposedly “stable” condition meant that the care she received was not skilled. She argued that she was eligible for home health coverage based on skilled observation and assessment as well as patient education services. Ms. McKee was at risk for complications, and the knowledge and judgment of skilled nurses were key to identifying when she needed additional or modified care. In addition, Ms. McKee challenged Medicare’s failure to afford appropriate weight to the opinion of her treating physician about her need for skilled care.

Under the terms of a settlement agreement filed on July 21, 2020, Medicare agreed to pay Ms. McKee’s home health claim in full.

Advocates should continue to be alert for inappropriate denials of coverage based on lack of improvement or on “stability” – particularly for individuals with chronic conditions. Jimmo requires Medicare coverage determinations to be based on individuals’ need for skilled care, not on their potential for improvement or on their stability. Skilled nursing, or physical, occupational, or speech therapy may be required to maintain a person’s condition or to prevent or slow deterioration. For more information about Jimmo and the “Improvement Standard,” see the Center for Medicare Advocacy and CMS websites.

Rental Housing Stabilization Program offers help with rent

For help with rent, Vermonters can apply for the Rental Housing Stabilization Program through the Vermont State Housing Authority (VSHA). Learn more about this financial help on our legal help website.

Vermont COVID Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program offers help with unpaid mortgage payments or property taxes

Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA) is accepting applications for the Vermont COVID Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program. Learn more about this financial help on our legal help website.

Vermont Legal Aid and Legal Services Vermont are posting updates on VTLawHelp.org in regards to the coronavirus crisis. See the updated information here: COVID-19 Coronavirus: Legal and Benefits Updates for Vermonters. Some translations are also available.

Vermont Legal Aid is hosting a series of virtual town halls on legal issues during the coronavirus crisis. You can attend online or by telephone.

Learn how to join in or watch past events by visiting our legal help website.

From the first moments of the COVID-19 emergency, Vermont Legal Aid has been quick to advocate for Vermonters by making requests to state officials and legislators — in addition to giving legal help to Vermonters.

Some recent work has included: Helping Vermonters access new financial assistance such as the Rental Housing Stabilization Program and the Vermont COVID Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program Successfully lobbying for a moratorium on utility shutoffs (electric, gas and phones) Pushing for a statewide moratorium on evictions Advocating for low-income and vulnerable Vermonters in the Vermont courts Tracking down Vermonters who were about to be removed from their homes during this health crisis and filing motions to postpone their writs of possession Lobbying for increases in food benefits for families having a harder time putting meals on the table Advising and representing those who are denied unemployment compensation Working to make health insurance more accessible to all by helping Vermonters take advantage of the special enrollment period on Vermont Health Connect, and focusing on decreasing the cost of COVID-19 related care Advocating to assure that Vermonters with intellectual and developmental disabilities have equal access to life-sustaining treatment and are not discriminated against based on their disability Promoting the rights of people getting long-term care services Advocating for rule changes that allow low-income and vulnerable people to continue to access benefits and services during the emergency order Making recommendations to protect the education rights of students with disabilities as remote education is implemented Identifying and communicating the most urgent needs within the Developmental Services system Advocating the use federal funds to promote fair, inclusive housing even during the crisis Advocating to assure that residents of Vermont’s residential care homes are able to stay safely in their homes throughout the pandemic Urging state housing policymakers to ensure housing stimulus money goes to the poorest and most vulnerable Vermonters Advocating in the legislature for low-income and vulnerable people Advocating for CARES Act funding to be devoted to the needs of low-income and vulnerable people Outreach and education about COVID-19 changes to the law and rules Summarizing new laws, rules, benefits, financial help and procedures on a dedicated COVID-19 page at https://vtlawhelp.org/coronavirus-updates Things are moving quickly and Vermont Legal Aid and Legal Services Vermont are working hard to support the well-being of low-income and vulnerable Vermonters.   Vermont Legal Aid welcomes your support!

Vermont Legal Aid and Legal Services Vermont take confidentiality, privacy and information security seriously. On May 10th, our IT department discovered that our shared computer system had been frozen. We quickly investigated the security of our whole computer system and reported the incident to law enforcement.

With the assistance of security experts, we made a preliminary determination that no client information has been exposed. We are taking steps today that will further protect data in the future.

Despite this disruption, staff members continue to serve Vermonters. If you are a current client, feel free to reach out to your attorney or advocate at VLA or LSV. If you have a new legal problem, please call us.

To contact us, Vermonters should leave a message on the statewide legal help number at 1-800-889-2047 or with the Office of the Health Care Advocate at 1-800-917-7787. Remember to share information about any important deadlines in your voice message.

Our websites were not impacted. The statewide legal help website at VTLawHelp.org continues to offer Vermonters help with civil legal problems. It also has the most recent COVID-19 related information on topics such as eviction, unemployment, stimulus checks, health care access and more.

Please be assured that we continue to work hard on behalf of vulnerable and low-income Vermonters.

Vermont Legal Aid and Legal Services Vermont are not seeing walk-in clients at this time. Please do not come to one of our offices. A sign will be posted saying our doors are locked and we are working remotely. Please use our helpline phone number or online form to ask us for help.  

(If you are a current client who made a specific appointment with one of our staff members, please confirm your appointment before coming.) 

Thank you for understanding as we follow recommendations from health officials and we work to lessen the impact of the coronavirus in our communities!

Press Release | February 25, 2020

Press Contacts: Sandra Paritz, Attorney, or
Rebecca Smith, Attorney        

MONTPELIER — A federal Court has ruled that tenants can bring claims against the City of St. Albans for unfairly removing them from their home after the landlord refused to make necessary repairs. Dwight Martell and Lynn Cook claimed that the City had abruptly shut off their water, electricity, and gas and ordered them out, making them homeless, all without having a legal basis for doing so.  They sued for violations of their Fourteenth Amendment due process rights and Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable seizure. The City moved to dismiss the tenants’ claims. On February 21, 2020, United States Magistrate Judge John M. Conroy denied the dismissal of tenants’ Fourteenth Amendment procedural Due Process claim and Fourth Amendment unlawful seizure claim; and granted dismissal of Tenants’ Fifth Amendment Takings Clause Claim. 

Rebecca Smith and Sandra Paritz of Vermont Legal Aid represent the tenants. “We filed this case because the City of St. Albans health inspectors forced low income and vulnerable tenants to immediately vacate their homes, not because there was an emergency, but because the landlord told the inspectors that he would not be making repairs to their building. In other words, instead of ordering the landlord to fix the problems, the city forced tenants into homelessness -- with no prior notice or opportunity to challenge their sudden eviction.” said Paritz. “Vulnerable tenants have very little power to enforce the health and safety codes themselves. If they complain or withhold rent, they risk retaliation from their landlord. They rely on the city to inspect their rental homes and require landlords to make necessary repairs to keep them safely housed. Unfortunately, the City of St. Albans failed to do that here. Instead, when the landlord said he would not make repairs, the inspectors suddenly shut off the tenants’ power, gas, and water and ordered the tenants to immediately vacate their homes.” she said.

The City of St. Albans had conceded that people have a protected right to their homes, but claimed that this was an emergency.  However, the City had originally given the landlord 37 days to make repairs. It was not until after the landlord said he did not intend to rectify the problems, that the City immediately declared the property unsafe for occupancy and ordered the tenants out. The Court found that this was enough to allege that “the City did not ‘reasonably believe’ that, at the time of Plaintiff’s eviction, an emergency existed . . . .”

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The Office of the Vermont Attorney General has named Vermont Legal Aid attorney Mairead O’Reilly the “Vermonter of the Month” because of her work on expungement. Learn more about criminal record expungement in Vermont and our expungement clinics. The attorney general’s press release follows.

Vermonter of the Month: Mairead O’Reilly

Now a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid (VLA), Mairead was a strong advocate for a change to Vermont’s expungement law. Thanks in part to Mairead’s effective work educating the legislature, building consensus, and amplifying the issue on social media, the law Mairead advocated for is now in effect, allowing individuals with certain criminal convictions, such as drug possessions, to be expunged.

Believing, as we do, that these individuals who have paid their debt to society should not continue to be punished by being denied access to jobs, housing, or education, Mairead has spear-headed expungement clinics in several counties around the state. The Attorney General and several staff members joined Mairead recently at an expungement clinic in Hyde Park. More expungement clinics are being planned for the future.

We visited Mairead in her office to learn more about the inspiring work she is doing.

You have been a passionate advocate for access to expungements. What drives your work in this area?

At the most basic level, I believe that the way we use criminal records in this country is both cruel and illogical, which is a combination I cannot tolerate. It’s also an issue that directly impacts so many of our people in terrible ways—approximately one-third of people in the U.S. have records.

The mass dissemination of criminal records, and the collateral consequences that result, is cruel because it brands people as “unworthy” of integration within the community and allows discrimination against them, sometimes for their whole lives. Even if our criminal justice system was perfect and responded to crime proportionately across all communities—which it does not—a person is sentenced to a penalty that is supposed to be proportionate with their crime. Tacking on additional punishment after they complete their sentence—in the form of social and economic exclusion—is unfair. It also erodes public trust in our system of justice.

I think that the way we use criminal records now is counterproductive to creating a vibrant, healthy, safe, and economically viable community. When we prevent access to opportunity, we create an underclass of people who have few legal options to sustain their lives, which makes our communities less safe. We also lose tax revenues because people with records are paid less, and are more likely to be on public assistance.

I firmly believe that no one’s life is disposable, and no one should be treated as though it is, ever, not even after they are convicted of a crime. We need to send that message to Vermonters by inviting them back into our communities. Expunging criminal records, both practically and symbolically, invites people back into our communities.

Vermont’s expungement law is less than a year old. What sort of impact is it making on the lives of Vermonters?

Criminal record expungement is not a cure-all, but recent expansions to the law have had many of the anticipated results, including bringing people back into the community and allowing them to live more dignified lives.

Our clients are getting accepted into colleges and training programs; they’re getting promoted; they’re being accepted into higher-paying jobs; they’re transitioning off of public assistance; and, they’re free to travel across the border and participate in their kids’ school activities. I hope we can find research partners to help us further analyze the outcomes for our clients.

It’s also worth noting that while we have seen a significant impact in the filing of expungement petitions, the uptake rates are likely still very low. I don’t have Vermont specific data, but a study out of Michigan found that six percent of people eligible for expungement petitioned within five years of eligibility. I imagine Vermont is somewhere around that percentage.

Realistically, for this sort of legal remedy to have the intended public safety and economic impacts, the answer is to automate record clearance as has been done in Pennsylvania, Utah, and California. Several states, including Colorado, Connecticut, and New York, have proposed similar legislation this session. I hope that Vermont will seriously consider implementing an automated system that clears records routinely after a set period.

You made your way to Vermont after law school by serving as the Vermont Poverty Law fellow. How did that work inform your current work?

You made your way to Vermont after law school by serving as the Vermont Poverty Law fellow. How did that work inform your current work?

The fellowship directly shaped the work I’m currently doing, and in a sense, VLA and I constructed and piloted my current job while I was the Fellow. Now, I am a staff attorney for VLA at a Medical Legal Partnership with the Chittenden Clinic and Safe Recovery, serving people with substance use disorders. As my fellowship was focused on the opioid crisis, during that time I collaborated with Safe Recovery, our medication-assisted treatment hub, and a few local spokes, and developed what I called a “Medical-Legal Partnership-esque” program.

This past summer, VLA received a grant from the Department of Health to continue and expand this collaboration. VLA now has two staff attorneys working as Medical Legal Partnership attorneys with the Chittenden and Washington County hubs and with Safe Recovery. We’re looking to expand the program into the Northeast Kingdom as well. 

As an attorney and advocate, what tools do you use to spread awareness about the challenges facing low-income Vermonters to make an impact on their lives?

I am a millennial, which is to say I think social media can be a very useful tool to highlight issues and challenges facing our communities. I also find that it’s an invaluable way to connect with folks doing similar work—to share lessons, challenges, and perspectives.

Another tool to both spread awareness and make an impact is to diversify the type of advocacy I engage in. I think that advocating in administrative and legislative branches can be an effective way to impact change. Many issues facing my clients are caused by laws and rules that were drafted without due consideration of their needs, so courtroom advocacy has its limitations. I think that sharing the practical realities of our clients in the legislature, while advocating for change, can be an effective way to both highlight and address root causes of poverty.

We hear a lot about how young professionals are leaving Vermont for more urban areas. What about Vermont keeps you committed to this community?

In short, the people; the human-centered politics; the topography; the ethos; the healthy, local food. To me, Vermont has all the ingredients for a pretty ideal existence, and selfishly, that makes me want to stick around.

There is also so much good, collaborative work for justice happening across the state, and there’s so much openness to further growth from professionals across disciplines. I’m not blind to the issues plaguing Vermont: we struggle with injustices of all kinds, and our institutions are far from perfect. But I see genuine commitment across the state, in all branches of government and in all sectors, to do better for our people and our environment. At the end of the day, that motivates me to stay, to help build a more just and equitable state, and to ultimately show the rest of the nation that another way is possible.

Recent press coverage for expungement clinics

WCAX-TV3: Legal clinic offers a chance for a clean slate

VTDigger.com: Legal expungement clinic offers Vermonters a chance to start over

VT Digger photo

Vermonters face broad and substantial unmet civil legal needs. These needs are present across the entire spectrum of civil legal subject areas — including family law, housing, healthcare, public benefits, debt and more. This statewide study reviewed a broad range of objective and subjective data to determine the most persistent areas of unmet civil legal need in the state. Follow this link to read the report.

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