A number of important issues ranging from health care to financial security are being debated this legislative session, learn more about AARP-VT’s efforts in the legislature to improve the quality of life for the 50+ population across the state. To find ways to get involved and take action please contact us!
Better Protection for Residential Consumers in Utility Rate Cases (S.25): Governor Shumlin signed a new law that requires the Vermont Department of Public Service to give more consideration to residential, low-income and small-business customers in utility rate-setting cases before the Vermont Public Service Board. AARP VT helped draft the law and urged lawmakers to pass it. The law requires the Department to focus more acutely on the interests of underrepresented groups and to report back to the legislature in July on what steps it has taken to implement the law.
This is a big win for Vermonters and goes a long way toward leveling the playing field for the “little guy” as compared to utility, industrial and corporate interests.
Stop Predatory Pension Advances (S.223): Recently, AARP became aware of a fairly new kind of predatory practice known as pension advance loans. The companies who offer these types of products offer pensioners a lump sum of money in return for signing over a portion of their monthly pension proceeds for a specified period of time. The rates charged for these advances (loans) are sometimes more than 40% and clearly are not in the best interests of consumers. The providers of these products are typically out-of-state, internet-based operations with no ties to Vermont and they are operating without federal or state oversight or regulation.
AARP Vermont approached key stakeholders before the start of the 2014 legislative session, including the governor’s office, state treasurer, and legislative leadership, on a draft bill to prohibit predatory pension advances.
In January, the AARP Vermont state office, with assistance from AARP’s litigation foundation, met with the Department of Financial Regulation and the Attorney General’s office to discuss the draft language, as well as to participate in Senate hearings on the issue.
Last week, the Senate unanimously passed a bill that deems pension advances to be loans in Vermont, subjecting the companies to the state’s strict licensed lending laws. The bill also assures that if these companies continue these practices as unlicensed lenders they are subject to the consumer protections and significant enforcement provisions of existing law.
Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 Budget: Governor Shumlin focused on the economy, jobs, transportation, and education in his budget address for Fiscal Year 2015. Governor Shumlin also said he wasn’t planning to raise taxes or make program cuts to fill a more than $70 million dollar budget gap for 2015.
Instead, the gap in the general fund will be filled with one-time money that came into the state this year, along with millions from non-general funds, special funds, and funds from the federal government. The one-time money partially comes from court settlements, including $5 million from Vermont Yankee.
The Governor said Vermont has to wean off of federal money given to the state since the recession. The FY 2014 budget included $55 million in those one-time funds; FY 2015 will reduce that to $30 million.
His budget did include new spending – such as $33 million for transportation, $10 million for the opiate addiction plan he outlined in his state-of-the-state address, and $4.3 million for anti-poverty initiatives. The budget also included a 2% increase in Higher Education funding, effective Jan. 1, 2015.
Starting in 2015, Vermont will also have to start contributing to the new health exchange rolled out under the Affordable Care Act. So far, Vermont Health Connect has been completely funded with federal dollars. The Governor’s budget will go to the House first to analyze and make changes. Once the House passes a budget it will head to the Vermont Senate.
Choices for Care: Every year AARP VT has to defend the home and community based care budget under what is known as the Choices for Care (CFC) waiver. The waiver was built on a solid premise – that the state could care for older Vermonters with moderate care needs by using more home and community based care services and, as a result, keep them out of expensive nursing homes longer. With the savings achieved by utilizing more home and community based care services, the state could grow the home and community care based system statewide by reinvesting the savings back into the system. Unfortunately, every year there is a budget fight over the annual savings from the CFC waiver and this year is no different.
There are currently $6 million in “savings” generated from the CFC waiver in FY 2013. The Shumlin administration proposed in to spend approximately $4 million on a variety of investments over an 18-month period, including reducing the moderate needs wait list and nutrition programs. The remaining $2 million would stay in a reserve in case it was needed — like a CFC “rainy day” fund.
AARP VT pushed hard for the remaining $2 million to be reinvested in home and community based care, but we were stymied in the House. Luckily, we continued to pressure the Senate and have language to invest another $1 million back into the home and community based care system.
Currently the FY 2014 CFC savings are running at about $1.5 million and in FY 2015 the CFC program was level funded.
Fuel Assistance: LIHEAP is a federal block grant to the states for fuel assistance and over the past several years the combination of federal cuts in funding and high prices for heating oil have diminished the value of the program for beneficiaries. The Shumlin administration’s FY 2015 budget includes $6 million for LIHEAP. To hold LIHEAP benefits to where they were last year would require another $2 million in state funds. However, a few weeks ago the federal government released additional LIHEAP funds. That means another $2.4 million for Vermont.
AARP VT will continue to push the legislature to assure that the fuel assistance benefit covers a high percentage of the actual heating costs of Vermonters on the program.
Budget Pressures from the Vermont Teachers Retirement System: For years, Vermont’s teachers have been eligible for health insurance in retirement. This benefit has been paid out of the corpus of the Vermont State Teachers Retirement System (VSTRS), and not through a dedicated fund solely for that purpose. As a result of this practice over the years, the actuarial value of the pension is now in jeopardy unless it is fixed. Treasurer Beth Pearce has identified the problem and estimates that to ensure the stability of the pension and the continuation of the health benefit it will cost Vermont $20 million a year. This amount is in addition to the $75 million projected General Fund budget deficit. Currently, VSTRS has about $1.5 billion in assets. Left unchecked, the cost of the retiree health care benefit could, in a short amount of time, cause the pension to be worth less than 65 percent of what is actuarially required. Some of the options on the table this legislative session to fix the problem are a mix of upping teacher contributions, property tax increases or taking the money from the general fund. AARP VT does not have a position on how to resolve this issue.
Health Care Reform: While much of the recent news about health care reform has been focused on the problems with the roll-out of Vermont Health Connect, the state’s implementation of the health insurance exchange market required by the federal Affordable Care Act, the legislature is already looking forward to the future implementation of the Governor’s universal health care system called Green Mountain Care.
The first few weeks of the session have been dedicated to reviewing all aspects of the current health care system in Vermont and the reforms that have already been implemented. Hearings have focused on physician payment reform, cost sharing and premium assistance, quality of care, hospital payment reform, etc.
But the big day will come sometime in mid-March when the Shumlin administration releases their report with financing options for Green Mountain Care. The expectation is that the report will lay out a menu of potential broad-based tax increases and other specialized tax increases which the legislature can then use to craft an adequate funding package for Green Mountain Care. It will no doubt kick-off a loud public debate about health care financing.
Food Stamp Application Error Rates (H.620): For the past few years, Vermont has been subject to financial sanctions by the federal government because of food stamp (3SquaresVT) benefit payment error rates that exceed the federal requirement of less than 6% and the national average of 3.4%. Overpayment of benefits has a very negative impact on 3SquaresVT beneficiaries because the state then collects from these financially vulnerable Vermonters the amount that the state wrongly over paid them. H.620 would require the state to hold harmless all 3SquaresVT beneficiaries who were subject to an overpayment due to these state errors.
Livable Communities – Shared Use Bill (H.122 and S.13): These bills encourage schools to open their doors after school hours for recreational use by providing greater liability protections to schools for broader community use. AARP VT has been focused on building more livable communities across the state, this requires raising awareness about the infrastructure, and the community design needed to maintain a high quality of life to reduce isolation, foster connection, and increase active living – even in the face of diminished physical or mental capacity. Shared Use legislation will improve the overall livability of communities across the state by enabling towns to provide a safe, affordable and accessible place to engage in physical activity and social life. Fourteen states have passed similar legislation.
The bill passed out of Senate Education unanimously and has been stalled in Senate Judiciary; the house bill also received a hearing in House Education and has been tabled due to opposition from the trial lawyers.
Oral Health (S.35): This bill is aimed at increasing access to needed dental care by creating a Licensed Dental Practitioner (LDP) designation — a midlevel provider who would expand the reach of the dental team and make routine care available to more Vermonters. Expanding the dental workforce to include a Licensed Dental Practitioner is similar to what the medical field has done by establishing a nurse practitioner and physicians assistants. Similar legislation has been enacted in Alaska, Minnesota, and over 50 other countries.
Too many Vermonters do not have access to affordable dental care. The reasons are varied but include: high costs, lack of adequate coverage, geographic limitations, and the inability to find a dentist willing to treat you. To date, we have relied upon a cobbled together system of care that leaves many of Vermont seniors without a real solution to their dental needs. It is important for you to reach out to your Senator in support of bill S.35; the bill is expected to be voted out of committee this week and go to the Senate floor for debate.