Court Locks Black Box

Do high courts do Friday newsdumps? It would seem so. The Vermont Supreme Court issued a ruling on Friday, July 1 — heading into a three-day holiday weekend — with massive implications for independent oversight of OneCare Vermont, our favorite too-big-to-fail institution, and for the state auditor’s office.

The newsdump worked like a charm. VTDigger cranked out a quickie same-day story that hit the Internet at a time when lots of people had stopped paying attention to the news. By Tuesday, July 5, the decision had pretty much vanished from public attention. A strong statement from Auditor Doug Hoffer blasting the decision went largely unnoticed. But I sure hope responsible parties in the Legislature have taken note, because something needs to be done to fix this.

The unanimous decision denied Hoffer access to OneCare’s payroll information. He had sought access after OneCare’s payroll and benefits expenses jumped from $8.7 million in fiscal year 2019 to $11.8 million the following year. He understandably wanted to find out why. It’s an issue that should concern us all because OneCare is (a) kind of a rolling experiment that’s (b) playing with massive amounts of public money for which it is (c) not very accountable at all.

I’ll get back to OneCare, our most mysterious of public sector black boxes, but first I want to discuss the Auditor’s part of this. The court ruled that the Auditor has no authority in statute or in contract to access OneCare’s financial records. It asserted that financial oversight belongs solely to the Green Mountain Care Board, which is essentially OneCare’s captive partner in this grand experiment.

Well then, I ask, what in hell do we have an auditor for?

The office is supposed to provide an independent check on anything state government does or pays for. If the court’s misguided reasoning in this case were applied more broadly, the auditor wouldn’t be able to conduct oversight of government contractors. And we’d have one less watchdog in a state government that’s already pitifully short on checks and balances. (The Legislature has nowhere near the resources to do any real oversight of the massive executive branch, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The funny thing is, as Hoffer notes, OneCare had complied with all his records requests before this. Which makes me think there’s something about that massive payroll bump that OneCare would prefer to keep hidden. Big raises for top execs, perhaps? Country club memberships? Private jets? Platinum health insurance that covers all the stuff the rest of us have to pay for out of pocket?

Severance packages?

I don’t know. Thanks to the courts, we may never know. The GMCB hasn’t pushed OneCare over the ridiculous payroll increase and according to the state supreme court, it’s the one and only institution that can do so.

The decision seems to rely on a very narrow interpretation of the law and Vermont’s standard state contracts. That seems like something the Legislature and Executive could fix — lawmakers could firmly establish the auditor’s authority in statute, and the executive branch could establish that authority in state contracts.

They may not be inclined to do so for political reasons. Hoffer has already exposed himself as a OneCare skeptic. Almost exactly one year ago, Hoffer issued a scathing report about OneCare’s claims of cost savings. He found that not only had OneCare failed to save a single dime, its costs were actually a fair bit higher.

How about that. A massive new institution costs more than no massive new institution. Who would have guessed?

The institutional weight of government came down on Hoffer with all its force. OneCare denounced his report, and the GMCB and Human Services Secretary Mike Smith had the gall to say that OneCare shouldn’t be judged solely on its financial results — when it was originally designed for the express purpose of reining in health care costs.

Problem is, the state government has put all its eggs in the OneCare basket. It can’t afford a failure.

When Hoffer released his July 2021 report, health care expert Ham Davis called OneCare a “dumpster fire.” I noted that “the farther we go along this course, the more committed we become.” Well, we’re another year down the road and we’re as fully committed as ever. Meanwhile, OneCare can’t prove that it’s good for anything and it’s trying to prevent oversight of its questionable payroll numbers.

And the courts are helping. Are legislative leaders paying attention? Or are they all-in on OneCare just like the Scott administration?

3 thoughts on “Court Locks Black Box

  1. Lee Russ

    There will be significant turnover in both the legislature and the Green Mountain Care Board. How many of the newly elected/appointed understand how far we are down a dead end road? How many have the knowledge and courage to reverse direction before we slam into the wall marking the dead end? I kind of doubt that it’s a coincidence that both Kevin Mullin, the GMCB head, and John Brumsted, the [extremely highly paid] UVM Health Network honcho have decided this is a good time to leave.

    Reply
  2. Walter Carpenter

    “Problem is, the state government has put all its eggs in the OneCare basket. It can’t afford a failure.”

    I think you’re absolutely right here. Everyone in the health care struggle knew that OneCare was a fraud to begin with and that it most likely would be a colossal failure as it has proven to be so far. So we keep going with it, costing billions a year for nothing, so that it won’t look like a failure

    Reply
  3. Judy Olinick

    Thank you! Both the article and the comment are clear, easily understood and present an issue that should concern everyone. I urge all readers to forward this to their state legislators.

    Reply

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