News

Ban the Box: Helping ex-prisoners

Vermont Legal Aid attorney Chris Curtis was interviewed by David Goodman about the effort to get all Vermont employers to ban the box.

“Ban the Box” refers to the policy of removing the conviction history check-box from job applications. If employers must ask about convictions, they can ask later in the hiring process. The call to “ban the box” has become a powerful movement for fair hiring.

Click the title to hear the interview.

Mushrooming Medicaid Costs Create a State Budget Crisis
Medicaid, a 50-year-old government health insurance program for the poor and disabled, is in the crosshairs of some state policy makers because of its skyrocketing cost. In the past five years, total spending for all the services tucked under Vermont's Medicaid umbrella rose $366 million. The state and federal governments share the annual cost, which came to $1.7 billion last year. Of that, Vermont paid $738 million.

Consumer advocates get nervous when they hear talk of shrinking eligibility and benefits. "I'm pretty worried about any of the alternatives other than finding another revenue source," said Trinka Kerr, the state health advocate [and director of Vermont Legal Aid's Office of the Health Care Advocate]. "They would hurt people. If you reduce some benefit, that has a downstream impact on people's health."

Obama Admin To Update Rules for ACA Special Enrollment Periods

On Monday, the Obama administration announced it will tighten the requirements for special enrollment periods, which allow U.S. residents to enroll in health coverage through the federal exchange outside of the Affordable Care Act's regular open enrollment period, the Wall Street Journal reports (Armour/Radnofsky, Wall Street Journal, 1/12).

Meanwhile, consumer advocates said they have not seen any evidence suggesting individuals are misusing the special enrollment periods. Christine Speidel, a lawyer at Vermont Legal Aid, said, "Most consumers are confused by the rules on special enrollment periods and do not understand the system well enough to try to game it."

Shumlin looks to curb driver’s license suspensions

Gov. Peter Shumlin is calling on lawmakers to eliminate the more than 70 nondriving-related reasons for which a person can have his or her driver’s license suspended in Vermont. During his State of the State address, Shumlin called on lawmakers to make it easier for Vermonters to get a suspended license reinstated, and to cut the number of reasons a license can be suspended in the first place.
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“What was intended to be a deterrent to bad driving behavior should not be a permanent economic disability,” said Christopher Curtis, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid. “The goal should be not to snare people in a cycle where they get ticket after ticket after ticket after ticket.”

Advocates say traffic fine reforms would reduce economic barriers

Lawmakers are considering legislation that would reinstate driving privileges to thousands of Vermonters whose licenses were suspended due to failure to pay a traffic fine. The legislation would reduce fines for people who are living at the poverty level or who receive state benefits.

Vermont’s system as it currently works is “essentially criminalizing poverty,” Vermont Legal Aid attorney Christopher Curtis told legislators last week.

Fines for minor traffic violations are often out of reach for low-income Vermonters, Curtis said. When one fine goes unpaid, driving privileges are suspended, but that person might continue to drive to get to work and pick up children from school, he said. If caught, the driver is charged with additional violations.

The fines snowball and can run into the hundreds of dollars, creating a barrier for low-income Vermonters who live in rural areas and need car transportation for daily life.

Curtis said he had a client who was sanctioned by the Reach Up program, a benefits program that helps low-income families, because she was unable to get to appointments due to a license suspension.

“You have folks that are trying to meet their obligations, do the right thing, but if their license is suspended they can’t necessarily meet those obligations,” Curtis said.

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The legislation also would drastically change the process at the end of the suspension. Reinstatement would be automatic. In the current system, people must reinstate their licenses after the suspension and pay a $71 reinstatement fee, which Curtis said is an additional barrier for low-income Vermonters trying to navigate the system.

Insurers Say Costs Are Climbing as More Enroll Past Health Act Deadline

... Anthony A. Barrueta, a senior vice president at Kaiser Permanente, a large health plan, said the potential for misuse of special enrollment periods “poses a significant threat to the affordability of coverage, and to the viability” of federal and state exchanges.

Consumer advocates said they had not seen evidence of abuse.

“Most consumers are confused by the rules on special enrollment periods and do not understand the system well enough to try to game it,” said Christine Speidel, a lawyer at Vermont Legal Aid. On the other hand, she said, “many people feel that insurance is not affordable, even with subsidies, and they will call the marketplace to see if they qualify for insurance when they get sick.”

Data suggest more lottery buyers are low income

Data released by the Vermont Lottery Commission suggests a link between high lottery ticket sales and areas with higher-than-average poverty levels.

In Vermont, however, people cannot use food stamps to purchase lottery tickets, and according to Chris Curtis, an attorney for Vermont Legal Aid, if a low-income person actually does win money, they could lose their benefits.

 “Vermont benefit programs have very restrictive asset limitations,” said Curtis. He said if a sum is considered large enough and is treated as income, that will knock someone off the program. An applicant has to have less than $2,000 to be eligible.

“Two thousand dollars is the limit for food stamps and for the Reach Up program. That’s not enough nowadays for a down payment for a first month’s rent and security deposit,” said Curtis. Once the asset is brought back down to under $2,000, the person can re-apply for the benefits.

Curtis said that overall the lottery is a bad bet for low-income Vermonters.

“Very low-income people and people living in poverty appear to be being fleeced by the lottery system,” he said. “It does put a disproportionate burden on low-income folks who are unlikely to see any return from the lottery at all.”

State Looks To Reduce Number Of Drivers Operating With Suspended Licenses

Transportation officials and advocates for low-income Vermonters are looking for ways to reduce the number of Vermonters who have had their licenses suspended, often for offenses that have nothing to do with highway safety. Chris Curtis, a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, says about two-thirds of all license suspensions stem from failure to pay fines.

Curtis says middle- and upper-income Vermonters aren’t going to let a several hundred dollar fine get in the way of their driving privileges.

“But if you’re living on Reach Up in the state of Vermont, and your total income is only $640 a month, which is the average benefit amount for a family of three, a $200 fine may as well be $2,000. It’s a third of their monthly income,” Curtis says.

Curtis is among the people Minter has assembled for a driver restoration task force, which will push for legislative reforms to solve the problem.

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