In last week’s legislative update I provided the House healthcare committee’s recommendation to Appropriations on the Governor’s Healthcare FY2019 budget. This week we came back to the discussion on the Governor’s FY2019 Department of Mental Health Budget.
The department was advised to level fund their budget. Specific to our jurisdiction are any recommendations specific to the mental health system - only two items were included this year.
One, the department recommended a general fund increase of $400,000 to place outreach workers as an extension of crisis services at designated agencies in the following communities: 4 towns in Chittenden County (including Essex), Rutland, Barre/Montpelier and Brattleboro. These communities were targeted for these resources due to the high use of emergency departments for homelessness and general use assistance with mental health concerns. According to testimony, the Chittenden County communities met together over the summer to create a strategic plan on how to best serve the needs of those in their communities. They advocated with the Department of Mental Health for the addition of outreach workers. The other communities were approached by the Department with the idea to hire additional outreach works; however, at this time the non-Chittenden County communities haven't created a plan for their use.
Two, the department recommended $1.5m for three months of operating costs for a yet to be built 12 bed forensics unit. This unit would provide hospital level of care for those being referred for a competency and/or sanity evaluation that requires inpatient care; those who have been found incompetent to stand trial or not-guilty by reason of insanity; and inmates/detainees whose psychiatric needs reach inpatient level of care. Providing these 12 beds for this cohort of people the Department of Mental Health, and other stake holders, believe the overall bed capacity for mental health patients will increase ensuring a higher level of care for all. The capital budget for building this facility is under review by the House Institutions and Corrections committee. At this time we do not believe the facility would be ready for use until 2020.
On the same day our committee is debating these two items, Governor Scott releases a letter to the legislative body outlining his list of recommendations for “maintaining the safest, healthiest and strongest communities and schools.” This was in direct response to the horrific event in Florida and the arrest of the young man in Fairhaven, VT. I applaud the Governor for releasing these recommendations and for his courage to change is stance on gun violence prevention. However, I am also really discouraged by the wide chasm between his statement in his letter and the mental health system budget recommendations. In this letter he advocates to “restore the foundation of the mental health system”. Specifically he says “we do not currently have the capacity to meet the needs of those requiring inpatient mental health services. To help meet this need, the Legislature should support our funding request for additional mental health outreach workers as well as funding for mental health treatment facilities”.
I want to be clear – we have a mental health crisis separate and distinct from gun safety issues.
Unfortunately, it is not just the capacity to meet the needs of those requiring inpatient mental health services that is causing a persistent crisis in our mental health system. We need to attract qualified therapists, fill over 400 open positions within the designated agencies, pay employees of the designated agencies to reduce turnover, increase funding to complete the 24/7 peer support line, increase community and school services, increase housing with supportive services and much more. We need to ensure we are diverting a crisis going to an emergency department so the person in need is receiving the care they need, when they need it and in the best place to receive it. At the same time we need a support system in place upon discharge from an inpatient stay.
Last year we passed Act 82 requiring the Secretary of Human Services to work in collaboration with the Commissioner of Mental Health, the Green Mountain Care Board, providers and persons affected by current services to produce an analysis and action plan for the General Assembly by December 15th, 2017. Some of the areas of focus were to include:
This was a busy week on the house floor with many thoughtful debates on important legislation. Below are a few of the bills and you can find all bills passed HERE.
H.294 - Prevents employers from asking about an applicant’s salary history while still allowing an employer to inquire about a prospective employee’s salary expectations and providing information about the wages, benefits, compensation or salary offered in relation to the position. This is an important way to help close the pay gap in Vermont. Women in Vermont are paid 84 cents for every dollar paid to men, amounting to an annual wage gap of $7,787. The practice of having to disclose ones current salary only reinforces the pay gap by gender or race in our state. By eliminating this step, we can help level the playing field. The bill passed 137-0. I of course voted yes.
H.624 - Prohibits a public agency from knowingly disclosing any information pertaining to a registered voter that is maintained in the statewide voter checklist. When President Trump announced a Commission on Voter Fraud and asked for voters personal information Vermonters were outraged and wanted to protect their personal data. The outpouring of contacts to the Secretary of State’s Office from Vermonters was by far the greatest for any issue seen since Secretary Condos has taken office. Virtually every contact was asking that their individual data not to be shared, or that VT not comply with the Presidential Commission on Election Integrity’s request for the voter checklist data. It's important we
have protections in place for Vermonters’ sensitive and personal data contained in the statewide voter checklist and this bill provides that protection. The bill passed 94-37. I voted yes.
H.673- An Act Relating to miscellaneous amendments to the Reach Up Program restores consistency between overlapping state and federal rules with the overarching theme being to invigorate workforce development efforts and improve efficiency and effectiveness of our state agencies. Reach Up helps eligible parents to gain job skills and find work so they can support their minor, dependent children. Besides the alignment of
rules our changes create more flexibility. For example, right now a single parent household can only have one vehicle and doesn't take into account an older child that can drive. It also adds completion of a literacy program as a qualifier for benefits. This bill passed with a voice vote and I voted yes.
H.764-An Act Relating to data brokers and consumer protection seeks to protect Vermont consumers through requiring companies trading in their personal information to register in Vermont and comply with data security standards. The highlights of the bill includes removing the fees for consumers to place AND lift security freezes with credit reporting agencies. Currently those fees are set in statute at $10 to place a security freeze and $5 to lift one. The bill also prohibits the unlawful acquisition of personally identifiable information and prohibits the use of personally identifiable information to commit unlawful acts; requires “data brokers” who buy and license or sell consumer data to register with the
Secretary of State as to whether or not they have an opt out process or a “credentialing” process on their customers; requires “data brokers” to report annually on the breaches of personal information they experienced, and the number of Vermonters exposed; and requires “data brokers” to institute and follow minimum data security processes, borrowed largely from Massachusetts statute. The bill passed 92-46. I did not vote on
this bill as I work for LexisNexis which is defined as a data broker under this legislation.
While not on the floor our House Healthcare Committee continued hearing testimony on the Governor’s proposed budget and made our final recommendation to the Appropriations committee. We could not support proposed cuts that would reduce access to affordable health care services for vulnerable Vermonters. At this time of uncertainty and change in the State and federal health care systems, it is critically important to support affordability, access to primary care services, the Office of the Health Care Advocate, and the core functions of the Green Mountain Care Board. We also recommended that $170,000 of State funds be appropriated to the Vermont Coalition of Clinics for the Uninsured. This money leveraged with federal dollars will enable these nine clinics to continue providing essential health care to uninsured and underinsured Vermonters without imposing charges or fees. The number of patients they serve annually has more than doubled over 10 years, but they have not received any increases to their annual funding allotments during that time. Our full budget recommendation can be found Here.
The next step in the budget process is for the Appropriations committee to review all policy committee recommendations to create a final budget to be presented to the full House for a vote.
Questions about the budget or any legislation, please join Representative Giambatista and I at our community conversation on Monday February 19th from 6:30 pm to 8:00pm at the Essex Senior Center, 2 Lincoln St. Can’t make it, feel free to reach out directly 802-373-0599.
It’s an honor to serve our community!