News

Old criminal records prevent many Vermonters from obtaining jobs, housing or educational opportunities.

If you have a past criminal conviction, or a charge that has been dismissed, you may want to figure out whether you can “expunge” your criminal record. Through the expungement process, the State of Vermont allows for specific convictions and dismissed charges to be wiped from your record after a certain amount of time has passed. There are a couple of different sealing or expungement laws, and the requirements are a bit different for each.

Expungement events are popping up around the state, and Vermont Legal Aid is helping. See a list of expungement events on our Vermont Law Help website.
 

Learn more

See our web page about Sealing or Expunging Your Criminal Record in Vermont for information on this topic and how to reach us for help.

The Green Mountain Care Board is reviewing proposed health insurance premium price increases for individual and small employer plans including Vermont Health Connect plans. (Small employers have less than 100 employees.) These plans cover nearly 80,000 Vermonters.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont is asking to increase premium prices by 7.5%, on average, for 2019. MVP Health Care is asking to increase premium prices by 10.9% on average. The price increases vary by plan.

Vermonters who get subsidies to help with premium prices may pay more or less in 2019 than in 2018. Changes to subsidized Vermonters’ premium prices are mostly based on changes in income, family size and which plan they choose during the next open enrollment. If you have questions about premium prices, contact the Office of the Health Care Advocate.

The Green Mountain Care Board will decide whether to change the premium prices for 2019. You can tell the board what you think they should do. Visit our How the Public Can Participate page for details on the public hearings and how to submit public comments to the board online, by mail or by phone. Your comments will be part of the public record. 

The Green Mountain Care Board must consider public comments when setting the 2019 premium prices. The public comment period ends July 25, 2018.

If you have questions about your health insurance, health care or about how you can give a public comment, contact the Office of the Health Care Advocate.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has renewed funding for Vermont Legal Aid’s (VLA’s) Housing Discrimination Law Project (HDLP). The $300,000 grant enables Legal Aid to conduct fair housing investigations and representation throughout Vermont. Under its current three-year fair housing grant, VLA has helped more than 250 people complaining of housing discrimination and carried out more than 150 fair housing investigations in several Vermont communities, also commenting on nine separate zoning and planning projects around the state that had potentially adverse impacts on groups protected by fair housing laws.

“We are very pleased to learn that Legal Aid will continue to be active in the efforts to ensure that all persons have equal access to housing in Vermont. Fair housing is a fundamental civil right,” said Karen Richards, Executive Director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission.

“I was so happy when I won and got to keep my dog, I was almost in tears,” said Jerry Tallman, who Legal Aid represented in getting a reasonable accommodation. “If anyone else is in my shoes, I’m glad there is an answer for them, that they can call and get help like I did.”

“Our fair housing testing and calls to us indicate that Vermont is struggling to accept its increasing diversity,” said Rachel Batterson, Project Director of Vermont Legal Aid’s Housing Discrimination Law Project. “Vermont’s low vacancy rate and the right to evict for no reason exacerbate the problem. Housing discrimination hits Vermonters with children, people of color, New Americans, and people with disabilities particularly hard.

“Every person deserves a fair chance to live in a neighborhood free from discrimination,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson in HUD’s January 23 press release. “The funds announced today will allow our fair housing partners on the ground to combat housing discrimination and ensure every person has equal access to housing.”

“Fair housing is central to sustainable, successful communities,” said Joshua Hanford, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Development. “We’re glad that Legal Aid will continue to work on equal access for all Vermonters.”

“Ensuring that people are treated fairly is central to Vermont Legal Aid’s mission,” said Vermont Legal Aid Executive Director Eric Avildsen. “Nobody should be denied equal access to housing, simply because of their race, ethnicity, disability, or having children. This new HUD grant enables us to continue to represent Vermonters who are discriminated against and improves the enforcement of fair housing laws generally.”

For more information about fair housing law, visit https://vtlawhelp.org/discriminationfair-housing.  For more information about HUD’s Fair Housing programs, see HUD’s full press release at https://www.hud.gov/press/press_releases_media_advisories/HUD_No_18_004

Renters at Risk: The Cost of Substandard Housing

Despite regulations intended to protect them from substandard housing conditions, many Vermont tenants still live in unsafe and unhealthy homes. Today, Vermont Legal Aid released a report, Renters at Risk: The Cost of Substandard Housing, to examine the problem and call for policy solutions to address substandard housing.

The report was the result of data analysis and interviews with tenants, advocates, and public officials. Our key findings are as follows.

1. Tenants who suffer from the various impacts of unsafe and unhealthy housing conditions experience increased health care usage, mental health problems, disruption to school and work, and homelessness.

2. The most common problems tenants face are pests and plumbing problems.

3. Threat of eviction and lack of affordable housing options often prevent tenants from reporting rental housing health code violations.

4. Town health officers are commonly unpaid volunteers without the time or experience necessary to address health code violations.

5. We can and should make changes to our code enforcement system.

In our report, the voices of nine tenants in the struggle for healthy housing reveal the long-lasting impacts of substandard housing. It is clear that their experiences with inadequate housing conditions are not isolated instances – many other renters throughout Vermont suffer serious problems in their rented homes. For example, Amberly, a tenant in Rutland, had to live with a severe rat infestation (see attached photo). It appeared that they were coming into her home from the outside through the basement.  Amberly set traps and did what she could, but had to live with rats -- in her home, in her kitchen, chewing on her possessions – for months before she could move out. Amberly developed hives and other medical issues in addition to handling the plain stress of a rat infesation, all while trying to juggle work and raising two small children.

“This kind of situation is too common, and it is not just a problem for tenants,” according to Maryellen Griffin, one of the attorneys at Vermont Legal Aid who worked with lead author Tessa Horan on the report. “These problems also hurt good landlords, towns, and taxpayers. The medical costs, the downward pressure on property values, the risk that the rats will continue to multiply and migrate to other buildings, not to mention the human suffering – these are problems for all of us.  Allowing our housing stock to continue to degrade threatens the health of our residents as well as the tax base and the viability and vibrancy of our towns.”

We are proposing legislation to address this issue using three strategies:

1. Strengthen Town Health Officers’ authority to issue orders and enforce them, and make it unlawful to re-rent an apartment if the landlord has not complied with the orders.

2. Direct the Department of Health to provide more coordinated support to Town Health Officers.

3. Create a statewide database of rental housing to collect better data about the problem.

As Jonathan Bond from Vermont Tenants Inc. said in the report, “If we’re going to have a really basic health code, I would like to see the basic health code being enforced, and right now it’s just not being enforced.”

To read our full report and list of recommendations to address the impacts of substandard housing on Vermont tenants, visit our website at http://www.vtlegalaid.org/renters-at-risk.

Legislature, insurers look to cover federal health subsidy cut

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s cutoff of federal funding for a health insurance subsidy in October, state officials, insurers and lawmakers are considering a plan to ease the impact on Vermonters.

Lawmakers anticipate moving quickly to allow reworking of some health care plans, as the insurance rate-setting process for next year is set to kick off within weeks.

A Trump executive order in October ended federal funding for a subsidy, part of the Affordable Care Act, aimed at stabilizing insurance premiums and keeping costs manageable for consumers.

However, a mandate in federal law continues to require insurers to offer a silver-level health plan at reduced cost to people whose income is up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level. Without federal dollars, insurance companies are left to bear the cost of that benefit themselves, which is expected to drive up premiums for all health plans.

Now, key players in Vermont’s health insurance sector are backing a proposal meant to prevent across-the-board increases because of Trump’s action.

The proposal would take advantage of a different federal subsidy — the premium tax credit — to make up for the loss of cost-sharing funding.

Under this scenario, premiums would increase only on silver-level health plans sold on Vermont Health Connect. Blue Cross Blue Shield puts that increase at 10 percent. Customers would be shielded from paying the higher rates themselves.

For most consumers, the premium tax credit would cover the rate increase, according to the plan’s architects. The credit is available for people with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level. Based on the 2017 federal poverty level, the credit is available for individuals with an income up to $48,240; for a family of four, the cutoff is $98,400.

People who buy silver plans through Vermont Health Connect but aren’t eligible for the tax credit — there are about 2,195 such customers now — would pay the full cost of the higher premium if they purchased their plan through the exchange.

But to help keep costs down for those people, the insurance companies would develop a similar plan with lower premiums that would be available directly from the companies. Lawmakers’ authorization is required for the insurance companies to develop parallel silver-level plans to offer outside Vermont Health Connect.

Only Vermont, North Dakota and Washington, D.C., did not make changes in the wake of the October executive order. According to Blue Cross Blue Shield, 37 states implemented a plan similar to the one lawmakers and health care officials are considering in Vermont.

Blue Cross Blue Shield initially drew up the plan, which has been endorsed by the state’s other major insurance company, regulators, advocates and other key stakeholders.

“We fully support it,” Susan Gretkowski of MVP Health Care told the House Health Care Committee on Wednesday. “We do feel it is the best way to protect each group of people in the silver level.” [...]

Chief Health Care Advocate Mike Fisher, of Vermont Legal Aid, also supports the plan.

“It will avoid many Vermonters seeing increased premiums,” he said.

It’s important for people to be aware of available subsidies, Fisher said.

He encouraged people to pay close attention to the amount they must contribute to their insurance plan when they are enrolling through Vermont Health Connect. Though the total costs may be high, their contributions will be much lower, he said.

“The sticker shock of the total premium scares people, understandably,” Fisher said. “It’s really important that people look at what their family contribution requirement is, and that will be unchanged.”

He and others emphasized the need for a campaign to raise public awareness of the change. [...]

When the Bedbugs Bite, Vermont Officials Are Ill-Equipped to Respond

As Chester's health officer, Leslie Thorsen is responsible for enforcing Vermont's rental housing code, meant to protect tenants from inadequate plumbing and heating, contaminated water, rodent infestations, and other health-threatening conditions.

Thorsen, an operating room nurse, does all this in her spare time, for just $1,000 a year. And when she responds to a tenant's complaint, there is little she can do if a landlord refuses to correct a problem.

"The [most] you can do is write a health order," Thorsen said, referring to a legal document that negligent landlords have been known to ignore.

Enforcement of Vermont's rental housing codes depends almost entirely on people such as Thorsen — low-paid or volunteer town health officers with minimal training and a limited ability to remedy substandard housing.

In a report set to be released this week, Vermont Legal Aid concludes that this system fails to protect tenants, essentially trapping them in unsafe homes. The report tells the stories of Vermont renters living with broken furnaces, sparking electrical outlets, cough-inducing mold and leaking toilets.

"I think it's fair to say that the governmental response has been inadequate," said Jack McCullough, a longtime attorney with the nonprofit law office.

Legal Aid's report calls for creating a landlord registry to allow more oversight of rental units, professionalizing the health officer force and increasing penalties for violating the rental housing health code.

Enforcing minimum housing standards is particularly important because of Vermont's aging housing stock — 43 percent of rentals were built before 1950, according to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency — and a dearth of affordable housing statewide, said Maryellen Griffin, a lawyer with Legal Aid.

Under the state's rental housing health code, landlords are legally required to provide necessities such as a sink, a flush toilet, a working sewage system, a source of heat, and a structure that is weather-tight and rodent-free. (Fire safety regulations are separately enforced by the state Department of Public Safety.)

Vermont law "would seem to put tenants in a good position to have reliable and well-maintained housing," McCullough said. "The problem is that actually getting those rights enforced has been tremendously difficult." [...]

Some health officers limit what they'll endure in service to their towns. Edgerly said he's declined to inspect a tenant's complaint about bedbugs: "I'm not going into a bedbug situation — no way."

That sort of attitude frustrates tenants.

"Our clients will make complaints to town health officers and it doesn't really go anywhere," Legal Aid lawyer Sandy Partiz said.

"We know that people are radically underreporting problems because they don't believe in the system," Griffin said. [...]

Legal Aid, which plans to advocate for some of these changes during the legislative session, says steps such as investing in a better-paid, more professional force of town health officers will save the state money in the long run. "Something that might have cost a landlord a few hundred dollars to fix, like a mold problem, can end up costing thousands of dollars in health care expenses to treat a tenant's resulting respiratory illness," the report says. [...]

Many Vermont Tenants Stuck in Unsafe and Unhealthy Housing

Despite regulations intended to protect them from substandard housing conditions, many Vermont tenants still live in unsafe and unhealthy homes. Today, Vermont Legal Aid released a report, Renters at Risk: The Cost of Substandard Housing, to examine the problem and call for policy solutions to address substandard housing. The report was the result of data analysis and interviews with tenants, advocates, and public officials.

Our key findings are as follows:

1.       Tenants who suffer from the various impacts of unsafe and unhealthy housing conditions experience increased health care usage, mental health problems, disruption to school and work, and homelessness.

2.      The most common problems tenants face are pests and plumbing problems.

3.      Threat of eviction and lack of affordable housing options often prevent tenants from reporting rental housing health code violations.

4.      Town health officers are commonly unpaid volunteers without the time or experience necessary to address health code violations.

5.      We can and should make changes to our code enforcement system.

In our report, the voices of nine tenants in the struggle for healthy housing reveal the long-lasting impacts of substandard housing. It is clear that their experiences with inadequate housing conditions are not isolated instances – many other renters throughout Vermont suffer serious problems in their rented homes. For example, Amberly, a tenant in Rutland, had to live with a severe rat infestation (see attached photo). It appeared that they were coming into her home from the outside through the basement.  Amberly set traps and did what she could, but had to live with rats -- in her home, in her kitchen, chewing on her possessions – for months before she could move out. Amberly developed hives and other medical issues in addition to handling the plain stress of a rat infesation, all while trying to juggle work and raising two small children.

“This kind of situation is too common, and it is not just a problem for tenants,” according to Maryellen Griffin, one of the attorneys at Vermont Legal Aid who worked with lead author Tessa Horan on the report. “These problems also hurt good landlords, towns, and taxpayers. The medical costs, the downward pressure on property values, the risk that the rats will continue to multiply and migrate to other buildings, not to mention the human suffering – these are problems for all of us.  Allowing our housing stock to continue to degrade threatens the health of our residents as well as the tax base and the viability and vibrancy of our towns.”

We are proposing legislation to address this issue using three strategies:

1.       Strengthen Town Health Officers’ authority to issue orders and enforce them, and make it unlawful to re-rent an apartment if the landlord has not complied with the orders.

2.      Direct the Department of Health to provide more coordinated support to Town Health Officers.

3.      Create a statewide database of rental housing to collect better data about the problem.

As Jonathan Bond from Vermont Tenants Inc. said in the report, “If we’re going to have a really basic health code, I would like to see the basic health code being enforced, and right now it’s just not being enforced.”

To read our full report and list of recommendations to address the impacts of substandard housing on Vermont tenants, visit our website at http://www.vtlegalaid.org/renters-at-risk.

Patients who are Deaf or hard of hearing will receive better services at the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) because of settlements reached with Vermont Legal Aid, the Vermont Human Rights Commission, and the U.S. Department of Justice. The agreements settle multiple cases brought by Vermont Legal Aid at the Vermont Human Rights Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice for UVMMC’s failure to provide adequate Deaf interpretation services to patients and family members at the hospital.

The cases were brought by Vermont Legal Aid because UVMMC had not provided adequate sign language interpretation services in multiple cases over the past four years. “Credit goes to our clients for demanding their rights to equal access in order to make positive change for all Deaf patients,” said Barbara Prine, Staff Attorney with the Disability Law Project of Vermont Legal Aid. “We also thank UVMMC for agreeing to robust improvements in its system for Deaf access.

Under the global settlement agreements, UVMMC must improve policies on Deaf access, train staff on how to provide accommodations, and set standards for working with in-person and remote interpretation. The agreement also includes grievance procedures. The Vermont Human Rights Commission will monitor compliance with the settlement agreement over the next two and a half years.

“This comprehensive agreement covers best practices for serving individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing in hospital settings and also provides for an extended period of monitoring to ensure that these much needed changes are effectuated,” said Karen Richards, Executive Director of the Human Rights Commission.  “The HRC appreciates the UVMMC’s cooperation in reaching a settlement that will improve services to their Deaf and hard of hearing patients and family members.”

 “We strive to provide all of our patients with the highest quality of care, but unfortunately we did not meet that goal in these cases,” said Eileen Whalen, RN, MHA, president and chief operating officer of the University of Vermont Medical Center.  “We have taken many steps to strengthen our interpreter services including hiring an Interpreter Services Coordinator, educating staff on the resources we have and how to use them, and upgrading our remote interpretation technology.   We’ll continue to seek out opportunities to strengthen our services and policies regarding the treatment of Deaf patients, and maintain the involvement of our patient and family advisors who have provided valuable guidance in this area.”

“I’m glad that Deaf patients stood up together for our rights. I’m also glad that the hospital has agreed to improve its policies and procedures so that the Deaf community will have equal access to medical treatment,” said George Lareau, one of the complainants.

Open enrollment starts Wednesday for Vermonters who want to sign up for a health insurance plan for next year through the state's online exchange or existing subscribers who want to change to a different plan.

The annual enrollment period runs from Wednesday to Dec. 15.

Officials tell Vermont Public Radio that Vermont Health Connect's technical problems have largely been fixed and operations have improved dramatically in the past year.

Open enrollment comes as President Donald Trump has done away with federal subsidies to health insurance companies used to reduce out-of-pocket expenses to low- to moderate-income Vermonters.

Mike Fisher, chief health care advocate for Vermont Legal Aid, says the benefits will still be available and it's up to the insurance companies to figure out how to fund them.

Legal advocates warn against Burlington crackdown

BURLINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont and Vermont Legal Aid are warning city officials that an ordinance criminalizing “quality of life” violations could result in legal challenges.

The City Council approved a resolution on Aug. 28 that calls on its Ordinance Committee to draft a new ordinance that “creates a criminal penalty for repeat offenders” for civil infractions including public intoxication, public urination or littering.

The letter from the two legal groups says that instead of criminalizing minor violations, the city should expend more resources to address the “root causes” of such behavior, which they say are poverty, homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness.

“Our goal was really to tell the city, the choice should be clear, we can either take the easy route to criminalizing petty code violations, or we can actually make the city a safer better place,” said ACLU Staff Attorney Jay Diaz, who has been a vocal critic of the proposed ordinance.

The City Council passed a second ordinance calling on its Public Safety Committee to review existing safety net services in Burlington and work with social service providers to improve their delivery, but supporters of the new criminal penalty maintain it has a role as well.

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo has argued the ordinance will create accountability for people who currently ignore the civil tickets they are issued, accruing thousands of dollars in unpaid fines in some cases.

It will also give officers a way to remove people who are intoxicated and causing a disturbance from downtown before their behavior turns violent, the chief has said. Police say the new ordinance is needed because of several recent incidents of violence in or near City Hall Park.

Councilor Kurt Wright, R-Ward 4, who sponsored the resolution calling for the new ordinance, said he was spurred by the frustrations of downtown business owners, some of whom have said aggressive panhandling and catcalling are upsetting employees and customers.

Both Wright and del Pozo have suggested that police and judges, when making decision about whether to arrest someone or what penalties to impose, will be able to delineate scoff-laws from people with substance abuse or mental health problems.

The problem, according to the ACLU and Legal Aid, is the act of being arrested and brought before a judge can have negative consequences for people living in poverty.

“Regardless of whether they are released on conditions, on bail, on a plea, after probation revocation, or after dismissal, low-income people commonly lose their jobs, miss rent payments, miss car payments, lose their property which may be left in the open, and lose contact with medical and other service providers—all from even a night or two behind bars,” the letter states.

Should the city move forward with an ordinance criminalizing low-level civil offenses, the ACLU and Legal Aid write that they will “work with impacted individuals to oppose and challenge it.”

The letter highlights a number of different grounds for potential legal challenges to such an ordinance including state laws prohibiting the criminalization of alcohol consumption, provisions against debtors prisons in the Vermont Constitution, and possible violations of the U.S. Constitution.

The ordinance could also run afoul of federal anti-discrimination laws, the letter states, because it’s likely to have a disproportionate impact on people of color and people with disabilities.

So far, the Ordinance Committee has not taken any steps to draft the ordinance called for in the August 28 resolution, said City Councilor Chip Mason, D-Ward 5, the committee’s chair.

An Ordinance Committee meeting scheduled for Wednesday was canceled, and the committee members are still working to find a time for their next meeting.

To read the full letter from the ACLU and Legal Aid, click here.

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