News

For poor Vermonters, it’s a long road to license reinstatement

As hundreds of low-income Vermonters turn out for one-day amnesty events intended to help them regain their licenses for a fraction of the delinquent fines they owe, some are calling for fundamental reform of the system.

Vermont’s system for suspending licenses is a “poverty trap,” said Christopher Curtis, a lawyer with Vermont Legal Aid and co-chairman of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s Pathways From Poverty Council. “The bottom line for low-income Vermonters is that the punishment does not fit the crime,” he said.

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“What was intended to be a deterrent to bad driving behavior should not be a permanent economic disability,” Curtis said. “The goal should be not to snare people in a cycle where they get ticket after ticket after ticket after ticket.”

Curtis said about 22,000 Vermonters currently have suspended licenses because of unpaid fines and fees. But that number is probably too low, according to Chauncey Liese, chief of driver improvement at the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

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Curtis said driver restoration days and the diversion program are good resources. But he also said tickets should be affordable at the outset, so that low-income Vermonters, like their more affluent peers, “can pay it off and move on with their life.”

“I think this is a common-sense solution that is going to garner a lot of attention and a lot of support,” he said. “And I think it’s long past due.”

Gov council makes recommendations steps to end poverty and homelessness

A governor-appointed council is issuing recommendations to end homelessness and poverty in Vermont. Members of the Governor’s Council on Pathways From Poverty discussed a report issued Thursday that seeks to end the cycle of poverty in the state and match people at risk of homelessness with permanent homes.

“We have got to end the ceaseless cutting of the safety net in Vermont,” said Christopher Curtis, co-chairman of the Governor’s Council on Pathways From Poverty, and an attorney for Vermont Legal Aid.

“We have seen, year after year, the drip-drip cuts to essential programs and services, and those are simply poor taxes,” Curtis continued. “In a state where we routinely hear Vermonters cannot afford any more taxes, policymakers are levying taxes on those who can least afford to pay.”

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“Inability to drive is a poverty trap,” Curtis said. “We want Vermont drivers back on the road safely, legally and affordably by reforming our traffic fine system.”

To that end, the council recommends the state expand “Driver Restoration Day” to year-round. These amnesty events have so far allowed 22,000 people to regain their driver’s licenses while paying a small part of their accumulated fines.

Also published in the Times Argus and Rutland Herald

Anti-Poverty Group Proposes a $2-Per-Night Hotel Fee
A council charged with recommending how the state could reduce poverty wants to impose a $2-a-night lodging fee to help pay for affordable housing and other initiatives.

More than 90 percent of hotel patrons come from out of state, said Christopher Curtis, a Vermont Legal Aid attorney and co-chair of the 30-member Council on Pathways from Poverty. The fee would raise $12 million a year.

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The council had a message for the legislature, which returns in less than three weeks to tackle another challenging budget. “We have got to end the ceaseless cutting of the safety net in Vermont,” Curtis said. Paring programs that help the state’s poorest residents is essentially taxing them, he said. “It is wrong,” he said.

Review of the First Tax Year of the Affordable Care Act and Look Ahead: Part 1

As a guest blogger for Procedurally Taxing, a blog about issues relating to tax procedure and tax administration, VLA staff attorney Christine Speidel has written a three-part series looking back at last year, the first tax year of the ACA, and explaining what lies ahead.

In Part 1, Christine reports that the 2015 tax season was largely successful. While it was a difficult tax season for a small minority of taxpayers, the majority of taxpayers were unaffected by the new Affordable Care Act (ACA) provisions. However, both taxpayers and practitioners will confront new challenges in 2016.

Review of the First Tax Year of the Affordable Care Act and Look Ahead: Part 2  (December 15, 2015)

Yesterday, we began a look at the ACA by examining reconciliation issues [with guest blogger Christine Speidel, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid]. We continue to look at reconciliation issues today [with Christine] before moving on to information returns.

Review of the First Tax Year of the Affordable Care Act and Look Ahead: Part 3  (December 16, 2015)

Today we have the third and final installment of our review of the ACA in 2015 and preview of the ACA in 2016 [with guest blogger Christine Speidel, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid].

To Combat Child Poverty In Vermont, Advocates Want $2 Surcharge On Hotel Stays

Nearly one in six Vermont children is living in poverty, and advocates say it’s time to put more money into solving the problem. Now, a coalition is pushing for a surcharge on hotel stays to generate new revenue.

“Child poverty rates are on the rise, and this is a huge, troubling trend,” says Christopher Curtis, a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid. “We have a crisis among families who are facing traumatic economic destabilization, and the time to act is now.”

...Curtis says that if elected officials are serious about reducing poverty in Vermont, then they need to generate new revenues to address the budget shortfalls in Montpelier.

“If it’s done through reductions in services, or placing the costs or the burdens on families who can least afford it, that’s a poor tax,” Curtis says. “We’ve got to solve that problem, and lawmakers and the governor are going to have to address it in a way that looks at revenue solutions.”

The Dual Agenda - Vermont

Vermont's Office of the Health Care Advocate released a policy paper entitled Consumer Principles for Vermont's All-Payer Model. The paper outlines consumer-oriented priorities and concerns related to payment reform in Vermont. Those seven principles are:

- Access to Care: The all-payer model must improve access to care for Vermonters

- Quality of Care: The all-payer model must improve health care quality

- Consumer Protection: Consumer protections must be put in place to ensure that the all payer model improves access to and quality of care for all Vermonters

- Consumer and Patient Engagement: The state, the ACO and individual providers must engage patients and consumers as the all-payer model is implemented

- Transparency: Planning, implementation and governance of the all-payer model and single ACO must be transparent and include input from stakeholders and the public

- Social Determinants of Health: Concrete steps must be taken to address social determinants of health under the all-payer model

- Integration: Under the all-payer model, there must be integration and coordination across the full continuum of care

RACISM: Rally puts focus on change

As students poured out of Bellows Free Academy at the end of the school day Wednesday, protesters on the street corner held signs and chanted “Black youth matter! Black youth matter!”

The cold, rainy day did not prevent Shela Linton, a field organizer for Vermont Worker’s Center, from leading the “fight against racism and advocate for racial justice in our Vermont schools,” according to her.

In the Vermont Legal Aid report “Kicked Out!”, findings showed that African-American and Native American students were two or three times more likely than white students to be suspended.

“The report’s goal was to raise awareness and recommend policy changes,” author Jay Diaz said. “Out of the report came an organization, Vermont Dignity in Schools coalition, which is headed up by Vermont Legal Aid.”

Vermont regulators close-in on all-payer health care system

Al Gobeille, the chair of the Green Mountain Care Board, told the House Health Care Committee on Monday that he expects to have the terms for an all-payer model agreement with the federal government in December. The terms sheet would be the framework for an agreement that the Green Mountain Care Board would continue to negotiate with the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services to create a first-in-the-nation statewide all-payer system....

Trinka Kerr, the chief health advocate at Vermont Legal Aid, pointed to concerns about mental health and substance abuse as part of a report on Consumer Principles for Vermont’s All-payer Model. The 11-page Vermont Legal Aid report calls for the all-payer model to “improve access to care”; measure access in a way that’s more robust than determining who has insurance and who has a primary care physician; and give patients the opportunity to appeal their case if an ACO denies services.

Vermont Legal Aid report author Julia Shaw, MPH, writes in the introduction:

"Health care costs in Vermont have increased dramatically over the past few decades and are projected to continue to rise at an unsustainable rate without reform of the existing health care system. A recent report sponsored by Vermont’s Legislative Joint Fiscal Office estimates that Vermont residents spent $5.1 billion on health care in 2012, more than double the $2.3 billion spent on health care in 2000. This figure is projected to grow to $6.8 billion by 2017. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin championed legislation, enacted in 2011, to establish a single-payer health care system in the state. However, in 2014 the governor withdrew his support for such a system citing lack of a viable finance plan.

"With a single-payer system off the table for the foreseeable future, the governor and his administration are exploring other health care reform options that aim to reduce costs and move toward value-based care. One of these options is an all-payer model. Act 54 of 2015 directs the Agency of Administration and the Green Mountain Care Board to “jointly explore an all-payer model, which may be achieved through a waiver from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services” (CMS). Under such a waiver the state would agree to restrict the growth of health care spending for a defined set of services by all health insurance carriers (Medicare, Medicaid, and commercial insurers) to a trend rate negotiated with CMS. CMS would agree to waive some of its rules to allow the state to implement payment methodologies such as global hospital budgets and capitated (per-person) or population-based payments to some health care providers. To implement the model, the state’s three Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) are planning to merge into a single statewide ACO that would be responsible for managing the cost of care and care delivery for the population attributed to the model.

"The goal of implementing an all-payer model would be to bring Vermont closer to achieving the triple aim: improve the patient experience of care including quality of care and satisfaction; improve population health; and reduce the per capita cost of health care. The model would aim to change the financial incentives in the health care system, which currently reward high-volume care, to reward lower-volume higher-value care. An all-payer model would cause a drastic shift in the state’s health care system and would require robust regulatory processes to ensure that cost reduction is not achieved at the expense of access to services, quality of care, population health, or patient experience.

"The types of payment under consideration within the all-payer model, including global hospital budgets and capitated or population-based payments implemented by a single statewide ACO, carry a number of risks as well as potential benefits. Cited risks of these models include rationing care, cherry-picking or dumping patients, and sacrificing quality of care in favor of cost savings. An all-payer model could benefit Vermonters if these and other risks are sufficiently addressed in the model design."

Student protesters call for justice reform in Vt. schools

Demonstrators at BFA-St. Albans say a disproportionate number of minority students get suspended or expelled from Vermont schools. Activists in St. Albans called on schools to change their systems of justice. Believing the punitive approach is not working for minority students, several called for a system based on getting to the root of behavioral issues.

Outside of BFA-St. Albans, students and community activists spoke out against perceived racial injustice in Vermont's schools. They cited a study from Vermont Legal Aid saying only 5 percent of students are black, but 15 percent of suspensions involve African-Americans.

State and feds move closer on health care deal

State regulators have released more details on a major health care reform deal that would change significantly the way the health care industry runs in Vermont. Al Gobeille, the chair of the Green Mountain Care Board, told the House Health Care Committee on Monday that he expects to have the terms for an all-payer model agreement with the federal government in December.

Trinka Kerr, the chief health advocate at Vermont Legal Aid, pointed to concerns about mental health and substance abuse as part of a report on Consumer Principles for Vermont’s All-payer Model. The 11-page reportcalls for the all-payer model to “improve access to care”; measure access in a way that’s more robust than determining who has insurance and who has a primary care physician; and give patients the opportunity to appeal their case if an ACO denies services.

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