Shumlin Administration Dumps Ballast

Frontrunner for Least Surprising Personnel Move of the Year:

Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson is stepping down from his post in March and will be replaced by Deputy Commissioner Lori Collins on an interim basis, the Shumlin administration announced Tuesday.

First of all, I don’t know how much blame Larson deserves for the disastrous rollout of Vermont Health Connect, or in the fundamentally flawed oversight of its development. What I do know is that last September, when the VHC website was finally taken offline so it could be patched together, Larson was the only administration official to pay a price. He was benched from any involvement in VHC, but allowed to keep his job and perform other, undefined duties.

And as you may recall, when Gov. Shumlin announced his abandonment of single-payer in December, Larson was relegated to a seat across the room from the phalanx of officials backstopping the governor. Didn’t want him appearing in any press photos, I guess.

Either he was a scapegoat, or he failed. In any case, he got to keep his job and his salary, even though one of DVHA’s chief operations was no longer in his control. Nice work if you can get it.

Shumlin issued a statement on Larson’s departure, praising the soon-to-be-former Coffee Boy.

“Mark has worked as hard as anyone on my team over the last four years,” Shumlin said. “Mark led the Department through some challenging times, but no one cared more or tried harder to overcome those challenges so Vermonters could access affordable health care than Mark.”

I don’t doubt that he cared deeply or tried hard. The question isn’t how dedicated he was — it’s how effective he was. From all outside appearances, the answer is “not very.”

And yet, by the time he leaves, he will have occupied his position and drawn paychecks for a full six months after one of his primary responsibilities was removed.

One of Governor Shumlin’s best qualities is his loyalty. He builds a team, relies on them, and rewards them for their service. It’s also one of his worst qualities: he sticks by his people whether they objectively deserve it or not. Failure rarely results in punishment or removal; at most, there’s a mutually agreed upon parting of the ways. Shumlin’s been in office for four years now, and I believe the only high-profile person he’s ever fired is Doug Racine — his longtime #1 political rival, and definitely not a Shumlin insider.

In announcing Larson’s departure, both he and the governor noted that, during his tenure, the number of uninsured Vermonters has dropped by half. Which is true; but is that a matter of causation or correlation?

Available evidence suggests the latter.

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