Tag Archives: Morgan True

Now that I have their attention

Funny thing happened Thursday, unprecedented in my three-plus years of political blogging.

My sources. Not exactly as illustrated.

My sources. Not exactly as illustrated.

I got calls from not one, not two, but three different top Democrats seeking to gently upbraid me for stuff I’d written this week, and offer some guidance toward alternative views. Their own views, of course.

Which is nice for the ego. They read, and they care.

Also, their messages were valuable. They did offer some good information. But I’m not completely convinced.

The callers offered some pushback on the subject of newsdumps. They insisted that what appear to be newsdumps — the offloading of bad news when people are least likely to see it — were not newsdumps at all, but simply cases of the calendar conspiring against them.

There was a second message: the upcoming round of budget rescissions do not single out Human Services. They don’t deny that AHS is going to feel the pain, but the problem, as they explain it, is that vast areas of the budget are off-limits for rescissions, which makes AHS the only real target of substantial size.

They made some good points. The problem is this: the Shumlin administration has a well-earned reputation for (1) deviousness, (2) political gamesmanship, (3) newsdumps, and (4) targeting Human Services. Their own track record colors my views of recent events. In other words, if I was overly cynical, I put much of the blame on their doorstep.

I’m sure those inside the administration don’t see it that way. For the most part, they honestly believe they’re trying their best to move the state forward through tough times. But the 2014 election should have been a wake-up call: their view of things is often at odds with others’ views. Say, the voters’ views.

Let’s take their points, shall we?

First, on Human Services having to make almost two-thirds of the cuts in the upcoming rescissions. It’s true, but the reason is that AHS takes the lion’s share of general fund money. And only general-fund programs are open to rescission. Schools and transportation don’t get much money from the general fund, for instance.

According to outgoing Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding, appearing on VPR’s Vermont Edition Friday, AHS accounts for 40% of the total budget — but 75% of General Fund spending.

Which sounds reasonable to me. But…

1. This wouldn’t be the first time the administration targeted AHS. The most notorious case is Shumlin’s ill-fated effort to slash the Earned Income Tax Credit, one of our best bulwarks against the rising tide of income inequality.

2. The rescissions list was released on the Thursday before Thanksgiving. This may or may not have been a newsdump (see below), but it gave little or no opportunity for journalists and bloggers to seek clarification of the raw numbers. When I saw the raw numbers, they looked really, really bad for AHS.

And now, on to newsdumps. I had identified three: the rescissions release, the deadline for submitting rescissions, and the Governor’s release of his single-payer financing plan at the end of this month.

The rescissions release on Thanksgiving Eve wasn’t a newsdump, my callers insist. They had put together the list and informed agency officials earlier that week. Many agencies wanted to tackle the budget-cutting immediately — over the holiday weekend. That meant releasing the list on Wednesday, so the process could begin.

The deadline, Friday Dec. 5, they say, wasn’t a newsdump because they hadn’t planned to release anything on Friday. It was an internal deadline only.

I can accept that. But once again, history informed my cynicism. When I see something bad happening on a Friday or a holiday eve, my Weaselometer begins to howl.

Finally, the long-awaited and catastrophically overdue reveal of the single-payer funding plan (which VTDigger’s Morgan True appears to have uncovered the substance of already) on either Monday December 29 or Tuesday December 30. Many voters will be out of town or otherwise occupied during that time; media outlets will have bare-bones staffing. So of course it looked like a newsdump. 

Not so, insist my callers. They blame the calendar, mostly. You see, the 29th and 30th are on Monday and Tuesday. They couldn’t release it on Friday the 26th, and New Year’s Eve would be universally viewed as a newsdump.

The week before is problematic as well. The 24th, 25th, and 26th are out. Monday the 22nd or Tuesday the 23rd would hardly be any better than the 29th or 30th. And the week before that is too early; the plan may not be completely done by then.

Okay, spin it ahead. New Year’s Day is a Thursday; Jan. 2 is not only the day after a holiday, it’s a Friday, so that’s no good.

Which brings us to Monday the 5th — only two days before the Legislature convenes. That week is likely to be a circus, what with Scott Milne’s Dance of the Seven Veils, various ceremonial activities, and other hard news. (Such as the RAND Corp. report on marijuana legalization.)

The fear, so I’m told, is that a single-payer unveil on Jan. 5 could get lost in a blizzard of news. It would also give lawmakers less time to look it over. And, I’m told, lawmakers wanted to get their hands on it as quickly as possible. Hence, a pre-New Year’s release.

Again, it all makes sense. And again, given the administration’s iffy history, you can understand why an outsider would look at a late-December release and scream “Newsdump!”

This all illustrates how much the administration will have to do, to repair its tattered and battered public image. Much of those batterings were self-inflicted, as the administration acted out of unwarranted hubris and, sometimes, arrogance.

They may not believe they acted badly in the past. But a lot of Vermonters, including a whole lot of liberals, are convinced that they did. That’s why Shumlin’s pre-election approval numbers were so dismal, and why his very expensive campaign hardly moved the numbers at all.

And that’s why I’ve said the Governor should avoid newsdumps or anything that looks like a newsdump, or anything that looks like a political maneuver or a transparently bogus explanation. He’d be better served by standing up in broad daylight and owning the bad news, instead of reinforcing his reputation.

Of course, he’d be far better off by having an administration that didn’t produce so much bad news. But that’s another matter.

Callers, thanks for reading theVPO and taking it seriously. And thanks for calling.

Signs of hubris in the VTGOP

Vermont Republicans gained significant ground in last week’s election. But when you get right down to it, they’ve still got a long, long way to go. They didn’t field serious candidates for most of the statewide offices; they made nice gains in the legislature, but remain on the short end of big Dem/Prog majorities. They made progress on the back-office stuff, but they remain heavily out-organized and out-fundraised by the Dems.

And whatever made Scott Milne a serious contender in spite of a deeply flawed campaign with virtually no resources, well, can you bottle it and spray it on the next guy? Nope. I don’t think anyone really knows why Milne made such a strong showing, and I doubt it’s replicable.

My point is, the Republicans still have serious work to do. The VTGOP is not yet a serious contender — not statewide, not in the legislature. And already, there are signs that this whiff of success is going to their heads.

The most obvious sign is their eager acceptance of Milne’s reasoning for continuing the campaign into the legislature. Or should I say “Milne’s reasonings,” since he has a number of them on offer.

There’s the “ideological majority” notion, that lumps all of Dan Feliciano’s votes in with Milne’s, plus (I guess) most of Emily Peyton’s and Cris Ericson’s and Peter Diamondstone’s to, somehow, get Milne to 50% plus 1.

There’s the “incumbent rejection” idea: since most voters rejected the incumbent, that means the second-place finisher really won. In spite of the fact that more voters rejected Milne than rejected Governor Shumlin.

Then there’s the “legislative district” argument, which says that Milne won more districts than Shumlin and therefore demonstrated broader support. Which is obvious nonsense because many of Milne’s wins came in districts heavy on real estate and light on population.

And finally, we have the “there really isn’t a precedent” argument, in which Milne cites the handful of counter-precedents he can find — all of them emitting a fishy odor. The problem is, there really is a precedent, a very solid one; and when it hasn’t been honored, things have gone haywire.

In football, they say if you have two quarterbacks, you really have none. Well, Scott Milne has four arguments, but really has none. He’s throwing a whole bunch of stuff against the wall and hoping something sticks.

Among the people seeing through this are the two most popular Republicans in Vermont: Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and former Gov. Jim Douglas. Both have said that if it comes to the legislature, the top vote-getter should be elected. Here’s Douglas on VPR:

“It would seem to me unlikely that that would be a useful strategy and perhaps he should consider what Doug Racine and others have done historically which is to acknowledge the result and come back and fight another day,” said Douglas.

In 2002, Racine lost to Douglas by about 5,800 votes but since neither candidate won a majority, the vote went to the Legislature. Racine told lawmakers to vote for Douglas because he was the top vote getter.

… “It would seem to me that the good will that he’s accrued during the last several days ought to be preserved,” said Douglas.

I can kinda understand why Milne is sowing seeds of doubt; he came incredibly close to winning, which, in a way, must be harder to accept than losing decisively. (Gollum!) What’s harder to accept is that top Republicans like Don Turner and Joe Benning are grabbing at this logical apparition. Do they not, in Jim Douglas’ words, risk losing “the good will that [has been] accrued”? I think they do.

As they also do with their immediate call for repeal of Vermont Health Connect in favor of the federal exchange. They offer this as a serious proposal, but as VTDigger’s Morgan True reports, they haven’t worked out any of the details. Like how we’d make good all the premium assistance the working poor and middle class receive thanks to Vermont having its own exchange. Turner’s got a kinda-sorta plan for that, but he clearly hasn’t thought it through.

So why pull a half-baked cake out of the oven? The obvious answer is, to try to capitalize on the election results. And because the hubris is strong in the VTGOP right now.

Turner goes so far as to insist that VHC might need repeal even if it’s up and running when the legislature reconvenes.

Hmm, yeah, kill something that’s finally working after all the investment of money, time, and toil? Don’t think so.

The Republicans would do well to consider the letter and the spirit of Jim Douglas’ advice. Don’t get over your skis. Don’t, in the words of Gov. Shumlin, get too far out in front of the troops.

In renewing the war against health care reform, and in promoting the idea that the legislature should elect the second-place candidate, the Republicans show early signs of turning into the balls-to-the-wall ideologues we all love to hate in the national GOP. By now they should know that’s a recipe for disaster in Vermont. And it’s the opposite of Phil Scott’s alleged vision for a broader, more inclusive party.

A little diplomacy, a little statesmanship, might seem like a step backward right now. But it’s the best thing for the longer-term prosperity of the Vermont Republican Party.

$20,000,000 is the least of our problems

Big scoop came out Friday. As first reported by VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld, the still-troubled Vermont Health Connect could cost the state as much as $20 million extra this fiscal year — for expenses that the federal government might decide not to cover.

The story got some legs, although it came out in the journalistic dead zone of Friday afternoon. It was picked up by other outlets and became kind of a big deal.

And it was the best possible thing that could have happened to the Shumlin Administration. 

Why do I say that? Because it sucked the oxygen out of that particular room, leaving a much bigger VHC story flailing in its wake. (Mixed metaphor? Sorry.)

The story, by VTDigger’s Morgan True, included the $20 million bit, but also revealed a host of other problems with VHC. The story paints a bleak picture of a system still in disarray, and facing big new challenges in less than two weeks.

The problems, in rough order of appearance in True’s narrative:

— The VHC website will be up and running in time for the new open enrollment period, which starts on Nov. 15. But previously insured customers seeking to renew will be asked to stay away from the website and instead fill out a paper form and submit it by mail. The reason: More of this year’s “customer service frustration” is expected by health care reform chief Lawrence Miller. Great.

— As open enrollment looms, there’s still “a mountain of old problems” that will be impossible to resolve by the 15th. So the masters of health care have come up with a kludge: they’ll keep the old cases active with tricks like fake zip codes, even as they’re working on new cases.

Gee, that sounds like a sure-fire plan. Nothing can go wrong with loading fake zip codes into an already wonky system, can it?

— The state’s contract with its new contractor, Optum, hasn’t been renewed yet. If it’s not by the end of business Monday, the company won’t continue to work and “‘Vermonters will not be renewed and will lose coverage,’ according to a document obtained by VTDigger.”

— The state has failed to keep up with required income verifications for “thousands of Medicaid beneficiaries,” which is “a growing concern of the feds.” If some recipients turn out to be ineligible, the state could be on the hook for their medical bills.

— This is more of a problem than you might think because “during the past year, people were hastily added to the state’s Medicaid rolls in order to close out their cases and get them off the hands of overworked employees,” according to the anonymous VHC worker.

— One anonymous VHC worker reported internal problems with Optum employees making mistakes, being poorly trained, being shuttled in and out of state frequently, and “a lack of ownership on the part of mid- to lower-level state employees,” who believe that if the system fails, Optum will take the heat.

— The motives of Optum and other contractors are being questioned by a top VHC official, who pointed out in an Oct. 15 memo that the contractors “have financial motivation to protract their term of employment… to generate profit.” He says the state needs to find a path forward that gives contractors a reasonable profit but ensures that Vermont doesn’t pay too much.

— “Many of the state employees… are temporary workers.” Some have been working on VHC for over a year, which is far longer than is allowed for temp staff. Unlike regular, unionized state employees, the temps don’t get any benefits, just a straight hourly rate.

— Because some coverage has tax implications and VHC staff are not trained in that area, there’s a fear that thousands of VHC customers could find themselves with an unexpected tax bill come April.

This is all on top of the potential $20,000,000 shortfall. Which is bad enough, but now you know why I say the Shumlin Administration should thank its lucky stars that it was Hirschfeld’s story that got spread around and not Morgan True’s far more detailed, far more damaging one.

Hack’s retreat

The conservatives really thought they’d gotten hold of a hot one.

They’d suddenly “discovered” a Shumlin Administration plan to “take over” Medicare, and began furiously stoking fear among Vermont seniors. Or at least trying their best to do so. As if they really gave a damn about Medicare, considering that their party is actively trying to kill it for future enrollees. And that their favored candidate, Dan Feliciano, is a Libertarian and presumably doesn’t believe in relying on the gubmint for anything.

It took a few days for the Administration to put together a coherent response, perhaps because they were incredulous that anyone would take this seriously. But their response did come, and it was simple and categorical: There is no such thing.

First word actually came from VTDigger’s Anne Galloway, who reported that the pertinent clause in Vermont’s health care reform law had been amended last spring, and that the law no longer mentioned anything like a takeover.

Which, as I predicted, didn’t stop the anti-reform crowd from pushing the idea. Here’s a Twitter exchange between Agitator-in-Chief Darcie “Hack” Johnston and Yours Truly, beginning with a Johnston link to a fear-stoking radio ad produced by the Ethan Allen Institute:

Funny, I didn’t get a response to that last one.

Meanwhile, El Jefe General John McClaughry leaped into the fray with a partial retreat, posted as a Comment under Galloway’s story. In it, he tried to muddy the legal waters before concluding that apparently there would be no Medicare takeover — but instead of admitting the whole hoopla had been pointless, he posited that the Administration was “trying to squirm out” of their alleged intent to take over Medicare. He further congratulated Dan Feliciano, the one who first tried to peddle this bill of goods, for supposedly uncovering the Shumlin plot and forcing the Governor to abandon it.

Like I’ve said before, sometimes I think ol’ Jefe doesn’t really mean the stuff he writes; he’s just trollin’ us.

Later in the day came another VTDigger story, amplifying Galloway’s initial post. This time, Administration officials had joined the chorus.

Robin Lunge, director of Health Care Reform, said unequivocally Monday that it won’t happen.

“Federal law does not permit us to get the cash,” she said.

Reporter Morgan True then explained that the troublesome portion of Act 48, the 2011 health care reform bill, called for the state to pay for all health services “to the extent possible under federal law.” And as Lunge stated, federal law doesn’t permit such a move.

Further, True reported:

That portion of Act 48 is what’s known as session law, or the legislation as passed before it is written into statute.

It provides guidance for writing the statutes, and while it is still law, the portions that don’t make it into statute are often temporary and meant to provide guidance.

“In 2011, we asked the administration to entertain lots of things, but it was in the context of ‘tell us whether you can do this,’” said Rep. Mike Fisher (D-Lincoln), who was on the House Health Care Committee when it drafted Act 48.

And after all that, remember that this year’s Legislature repealed that section of Act 48.

Johnston, of course, was prepared with a fallback position: “if the state is allowed” to set payment rates for medical services “and determine the type of payments, it will be bad for seniors on Medicare.”

Please note the first word: “if”. The whole argument is based on her own assumption.

From there, it’s just a quick hop and a step to the conservatives’ favorite bugaboo: rationing!!!

Scary

It’s a quick, and nearly complete, comedown for Johnston and her ilk. From frightening stories of a Shumlin plot to take control of Medicare and screw around with seniors’ benefits, to a maybe-possibly-perhaps shift in reimbursements. So sad when a good conspiracy theory gets thoroughly blown up by the facts.

The ironic thing about all of this is the notion that hardcore conservatives are suddenly the Protectors of Medicare. Don’t I recall Mr. McClaughry, just a few weeks ago, pining for the good old days before we had all this Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid crap that was draining our independence and sucking the lifeblood out of the private-sector social safety net that somehow, magically, took care of everyone’s needs?

If you’re interested in protecting federal health insurance, I’d advise you that Governor Shumlin is a much better ally than the likes of Darcie Johnston.

VHC and the NFL

The National Football League, the unstoppable beast of modern sports, is having a bad time of it. Commissioner Roger Goodell, team owners, and players are under scrutiny for what appears to be an epidemic of bad behavior toward women and children, and a casual attitude toward violent offenders.

In actual fact, there are no more or fewer incidents than there have ever been. The problem is the league’s hypocrisy, backtracking, dishonesty, and double-dealing. Or, as we learned from the Watergate scandal — well, we should have learned it — it’s not the crime that gets you, it’s the cover-up. If the NFL had gotten out in front and taken plausibly strong action, its current PR crisis would never have happened.

Which brings me to Vermont Health Connect, our long-troubled and (temporarily?) sidelined health care exchange. And particularly the need for a heavy dose of the best disinfectant: sunshine.

To begin with the takeaway: Please, let there be no more surprises. If there are unrevealed problems, call a news conference ASAP and get all the bad stuff out in the open at once. No more dribs and drabs, no more Friday afternoon newsdumps; just a public accounting for everything. Take heed of the NFL’s tribulations, made worse every time new information comes out or a prominent figure sticks his foot in his mouth.

Maybe there’s no bad news left. Maybe we know it all. That would be great, if true. But the Administration’s recent track record doesn’t fill me with confidence.

Go back, first of all, to the Friday afternoon newsdump to end all Friday afternoon newsdumps: the release of the Optum report detailing serious problems with the state’s oversight of the VHC website’s construction. Not problems with the technology or software; but serious management shortcomings by Shumlin Administration officials. The report was released the Friday before Labor Day, so maybe you missed it.

At the time, the words of responsible officials were not reassuring. Health care reform chief Lawurence Miller said the Optum report would help chart “the best way forward,” which seemed to preclude any accounting for past maladministration. And Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson, who has since been sidelined from VHC oversight, allowed as to how his takeaway from the report was that “we have worked hard with our vendor partners.”

Well, yeah, hard. But not effectively.

On September 15 came the temporary VHC shutdown. It was first announced as a way to streamline repairs and upgrades in advance of the next open enrollment period. It made sense, and I praised it at the time: stop futzing around, get it fixed, and set the stage for the single-payer debate.

Since then, a couple things have happened that cast doubt on my sunny interpretation. A few days later, VTDigger’s Morgan True reported that the VHC shutdown had as much to do with a site-security crisis as with a sudden onset of managerial diligence.

Over the summer the federal government provided a timeline for reducing security risks, which expired 10 days ago…

Miller and Harry Chen, the secretary of the Agency of Human Services, decided to take down the website last weekend because the state was unable to meet a Sept. 8 federal deadline for security controls; the determination was not the result of a security breach or a specific threat.

“Rather than asking for more time, we decided to disconnect from the federal hub,” Miller said.

Miller could not rule out the possibility that the feds might have ordered a VHC shutdown if the state had failed to act.

Which puts quite a different complexion on the shutdown. And Miller didn’t reassure much when, speaking about security issues, he had trouble with verb tenses:

… it needs to be a high priority; it needed to be a higher priority than it was.

A curiously passive tone, methinks.

The very next day, we learned that top state lawmakers were displeased that they learned of the VHC shutdown through the media. Sen. Ginny Lyons, chair of the Senate Health Care Oversight Committee, said “We’re legislators, so we need to know.” Miller’s response? Officials kept it quiet for security reasons.

“The nature of the announcement was also an abundance of caution. Security advisers say when you’re going to do something for security reasons you do not telegraph that ahead of time.”

Uh, sorry, but no.

The federal government has crafted ways to share top-secret information about things like war, terrorism, and intelligence with appropriate members of Congress. I think Shumlin’s people could have passed a quiet word to, say, legislative leadership and the chairs of the health care committees. I think those people could have been trusted to keep a secret, for a couple of days, for good reason.

Miller’s explanation, of course, implies that lawmakers cannot be trusted. I think if I were Ginny Lyons or Mike Fisher, I’d be insulted by that.

And next winter, when Shumlin starts the push for single-payer, he’s going to need the support, good will, and trust of those leaders. Well, Miller as much as said he didn’t trust them.

I sincerely hope we’ve emptied out the Pandora’s Box of VHC. If there are still some dark, unexamined corners and crevices, then I implore the Administration to throw open the lid and let the sun shine in.