Disclaimer - this was written last weekend for publication in this week's Essex Reporter. We know now that the House did not override the Governor's veto.
By the time you read this I’m hopeful that we will have overridden Governor Scott’s veto to pass a fiscally responsible budget – a budget supported by virtually every legislator including members of his own party, provides for appropriately $30m in income tax reductions and significant reductions in the taxation of social security income and levels the residential education tax rate. Therefore, I’d like to direct your attention to other good work your legislative body accomplished this session.
Act 196 aims to make it simpler for small businesses to interact with state government by expanding the information on the Secretary of State website and links to relevant parts of other state websites. The goal is to have a project scope, design, budget and timeline by December 2018 that will act as a roadmap for website enhancements and services for the next 10 years.
Act 189 moves us forward in meeting the current and anticipated needs of employers and employees. The bill does many things including, but not limited to, extending the use of Career Pathways in workforce development by engaging students as early as 7th grade, strengthening apprenticeship programs in the state, authorizing the use of Workforce Education Training funds to assist small businesses in recruiting, relocating and retaining workers, and develops metrics to measure the relative success of these different efforts to guide future decision making.
Act 173 allows schools to use their allocated state aid for special education dollars in more flexible ways with a goal of educating students who require additional support more effectively and efficiently. Schools will be unshackled from the intensive bookkeeping that goes along with today’s special education reimbursement system. The bill also emphasizes Vermont’s obligation to students on IEP’s and each student’s right to a public education.
Act 126 will start changing our wage gap by prohibiting the practice of allowing an employer to ask for a person’s salary history prior to offering them a job. When a woman is asked to reveal her salary during a job interview, which is likely lower than her male counterparts, she is asked to perpetuate an income gap job after job because her salary may be based on her already low pay. This adds up over time, and it is discriminatory.
These are just a few of our accomplishments. Mental health, stabilizing our healthcare market, prescription drug transparency, breast imaging without cost sharing, lead poisoning prevention, adverse childhood experiences, gun violence prevention, data brokers and consumer protection and so much more was accomplished. Please reach out with any questions. I can be reached at email@example.com or 802-373-0599. I look forward to seeing you around the Village this summer. Enjoy!
As we enter what is likely to be the last week of the session, the activity on the House and Senate chambers has picked up. Many bills passed out this week and you can find a full list HERE. I’ve summarized just a few below.
The Healthcare Committee continued their focus on prescription drug pricing by passing out S175 an act relating to the wholesale importation of prescription drugs into Vermont. The intent is to import the prescription drugs that would provide a substantial savings to Vermonters. This bill requires the Agency of Human Services to design a wholesale drug importation program that ensures the safety of our prescription drug market by continuing to follow the US FDA safety standards and the tracking and tracing of prescription drugs as laid out in federal regulation and will prohibit distribution outside Vermont. Once the agency designs the program they will submit a formal request to the Federal Health and Human Services agency for a waiver. There is a provision in federal law that allows for the issuance of this waiver, and we can’t move forward without it. The National Academy of State Health Policies, who is currently working with Utah on similar legislation, is making available the template and design process to Vermont at no cost. Congressman Welch, Senator Sanders and a representative for Senator Leahy all testified in our commitment and pledged their support for S175 and will provide their assistance at the federal level. This bill passed the House on a vote of 141-2.
The House gave preliminary approval to S260 the Clean Water Bill on a vote 94-48. S260 creates a Clean Water Fund Board to study and recommend long-term funding sources for water cleanup in our state. If a long term funding source is not found by 2020, this bill provides for two funding sources – a 0.25% increase in rooms and meals tax and moving uncollected beverage disposal deposits to the fund. As the House Speaker stated in her press release “There are currently over 350 water segments in Vermont that need water quality improvement. Our waters are a vital component of our communities, our industries and our traditions. Vermonters deserve a Vermont that works for all of us. That includes clean water, and this bill takes vital steps to ensure our lakes, rivers and streams remain healthy for future generations.”
The House also gave preliminary approval on a vote of 135-0 to S261 an act relating to mitigating trauma and toxic stress during childhood by strengthening child and family resilience. Although we don’t have a clear estimate of the monetary costs in Vermont (in 2012 a CDC study estimated the cost of child maltreatment at $128 billion), we do know that Vermont is not immune from the ravages of childhood adversity. The latest research shows 24% of our children have an adverse childhood experience (ACE) score of 2 or more, while the US national average is 22% of children. Generational poverty, addiction, homelessness and incarceration continue to plaque our children and families – and in too many cases the root cause is childhood trauma. It is the purpose of this act to ensure a consistent family support system by enhancing opportunities to build resilience among families throughout the State that are experiencing the causes or symptoms of childhood adversity. While significant efforts to provide preventative services are already under way in many parts of the state, better coordination is necessary to ensure that gaps in services are addressed and redundancies do not occur.
If you have questions on these bills or anything else, please attend our next community conversation Monday May 21st at the Essex Senior Center. Representative Giambatista and I have held these conversations throughout our two sessions and we look forward to the opportunity to talk with constituents. Can't attend but still have a question - reach out directly firstname.lastname@example.org or through the contact session on my website.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve Essex Junction. I look forward to being back in the community more once the session ends and hope to see you around the Village.
I believe this past week was the calm before the storm. We have only a few weeks left in the session and week 15 was a quiet one. We did pass S92 which puts in place strengthened prescription drug transparency rules, allows pharmacists to provide information on lower drug costs at the time a prescription is filled, and requires additional reporting by medicaid and commercial insurers on those drugs with the highest spend in Vermont and where the price increases greatly. Most importantly S92 puts in place a generic type law for speciality drugs – think Humira and Embril - as their generic versions become available. All of the above will result in lower prescription drug costs, over time, to both insurers and patients. S92 will now head to the Senate for final approval.
Also, Governor Scott signed an executive order establishing the Governor’s Community Violence Prevention Task Force. This task force, composed of 14 members from the administration and the public, will review existing research and current gaps in Vermont communities to report back on how to address the “root causes” of the risk of violence.
Finally, our community hosted Congressman Peter Welch on Friday as he toured local businesses, spoke with Village officials and held a community conversation at The Nest Café and Bakery. I personally took much away from the visit but the most impactful to me was Peter’s statement “don’t underestimate what you can do in your local community.” With that as the backdrop I want to let everyone know about a new community initiative in Vermont that is happening this year. It is called Neighbors Day and the entire State of Vermont will be celebrating it on June 2, 2018.
To give you a little background, Neighbors Day was created in 1999 in Paris by Atanase Périfan, the deputy mayor of the 17th arrondissement after the unnoticed passing of an elderly resident. Périfan created Neighbors Day to help create bonds between strangers and since its inception, it has spread to more than 30 countries on 5 continents.
Last year the Essex Junction was the first local municipality to celebrate Neighbors Day in Vermont. After the success of that event, we decided that Vermont would be the perfect state to be the first place in the US to celebrate Neighbors Day as a statewide event. Dylan Giambatista and I wrote a Resolution that was passed at the start of legislative session in January designating this event to be held statewide.
There are many reasons that this is an important event, especially as the political climate in the US creates a divide between many people in our communities. Ultimately, the best part of this event is its simplicity. It is not a party for an entire village or town, but rather it is a hyper-local event planned by the citizens themselves and involving only their own self-defined “neighborhood”. Last year, some residents invited only the houses to their left and right for cocktails, while others invited the entire floor of their apartment building for an ice cream social. My neighborhood invited 30+ households to a breakfast event held on the playground of our neighborhood school.
This Neighbors Day initiative is a reflection of the power of positivity that still exists in Essex Junction and Vermont. I hope that you will find a way to bring this event to your neighborhood. You can find out about the history of Neighbors Day as well as all of the details about planning and hosting an event on the website: http://neighborsdayvt.org.
As always, I appreciate the opportunity to serve Essex Junction. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with questions or concerns – email@example.com or 802-373-0599
The Essex community has the unfortunate recognition of having experienced a school shooting. 1 teacher was killed and 1 injured. Last year we experienced a lock-down. It wasn’t a drill. My husband works in the community and he said the sounds from all the sirens were deafening. Teens texted their parents goodbye. I was here that day unable to fully grasp what was happening in my community. Knowing the situation was at the high school, I couldn’t begin to imagine what those parents, teachers and students were going through. For a brief time all schools were locked down. What I did imagine was my sweet 8 year old boy, along with 19 other children, in a room with one teacher, unsure why the doors are locked and shades drawn. When I asked my son what happened he said “a man in our community was having a bad day so we had to stay inside and be quiet until someone helped him”. Thank goodness for our teachers. I was honored to be at our high school walk out last week. I saw the look in the eyes of our teens, I heard their voices – they should not be afraid.
The Essex community had a murder-suicide, an adult and teenager, by gun. Our community lost a youth to suicide, by gun. And those are the ones I can remember off the top of my head.
Our conversation and action on gun safety legislation shouldn’t be just about the mass shootings. One live lost is one too many.
I support common sense gun laws, just as I support common sense driving laws. Will these laws stop all violence and death, no. But if they stop some, they are worth it.
I support extreme risk measures, expanded background checks, changing the age to 21 to purchase guns with the carve outs, I support a ban on bump stocks and high capacity magazines, and I support a waiting period and safe storage.
I also know this committee will d0 their due diligence. What will come forth will be laws we can enforce and laws that don’t impinge on the true intent of the 2nd amendment. I thank you for what your doing.
We as a legislative body also need to look at the whole picture, not just gun safety legislation. What are the root causes of this violence, what supports and services do we need in our communities and in our families, what security measures do we need at our schools that don’t infringe on the freedom of our children. What else do we need to stop another senseless death.
Last night at a community conversation a gentleman indicated he was okay with kids and schools having to do drills – he did it growing up during the Cold War. I appreciate his perspective but I don’t agree with him. We as citizens really couldn’t control a nuclear threat. We as citizens should be able to control a threat of our own making.
This week the House Healthcare committee voted out to important bills on prescription drugs that if implemented will ultimately lower some prescription drug prices and heard testimony on the recently announced plan by the UVMMC network to expand mental health care.
S.175, An act relating to the wholesale importation of prescription drugs into Vermont, shall have the Agency of Human Services, in consultation with interested stakeholders and appropriate federal officials to design a wholesale prescription drug importation program, including requirements of safety and cost. The program would designate a state agency to become or contract with a licensed drug wholesaler to import prescription drugs at a significant cost savings to Vermonters. AHS shall submit the proposed design for the program by Jan. 1, 2019. The bill directs the state to seek the appropriate federal waivers and if obtained, the state will begin operating the program within six months of the approval. Our committee took testimony from our federal delegation who are all in full support of our efforts and are willing to help.
S. 92, An act relating to interchangeable biological products, allows VT to substitute biosimilars, a generic type of biological products, which would ultimately reduce the price of these drugs to consumers. A biological product means such things as a virus, therapeutic serum, toxin, antitoxin, vaccine, blood, blood component derivative applicable to the prevention, treatment or cure of a disease or condition in human beings. When a pharmacist receives a prescription for a biological product, the pharmacist shall select the lowest priced interchangeable biological product. A health insurance or benefit plan shall apply the same cost-sharing requirements to interchangeable biological products as apply to generic drugs.
The bill also has a section on Prescription Drug Cost Transparency, which strengthens a 2016 statute. The bill would require the Department of Health Access to identify annually up to 10 prescription drugs on which the state spends significant health care dollars. Commercial insurers shall also create a list annually of prescription drugs on which its insurance plans spend significant amounts of their premium dollars, net of rebates and price concessions. The lists will be given to the state Attorney General’s office, which will require the manufacturer to provide a justification for each drug’s increase. The lists will be posted on the Green Mountain Care Board and AG’s website.
The bill will also gauge the impact of drug costs on health insurance premiums by requiring insurers with more than 1,000 covered lives to report to the Green Mountain Care Board the 25 most frequently prescribed drugs and the average wholesale price for each; the 25 most costly drugs by total plan spending and the average wholesale cost of each; and the 25 drugs with the highest year-over-year price increases and average wholesale price for each.
S.92 also eliminates the so-called “Gag Rule” that prohibits or penalizes a pharmacist for disclosing to a patient the cash price for a prescription drug or selling a lower cost drug to the patient if one is available. The pharmacist would be allowed to provide information to a patient regarding the cost-sharing amount for the drug. Remember when ordering a prescription drug you may ask your pharmacists if there is a lower price available for the drug.
The Health Care Committee joined the Institutions and Corrections committee to listen to an early proposal by UVMMC to add secure residential beds for mental illness at the Central Vermont Hospital, which is part of UVMMC network. The proposal would allow additional inpatient beds that would help address the problem with patients being held for long times in hospital emergency departments around the state. This proposal would also free the beds at the VT Psychiatric Hospital that would be used to as a secure residential facility, thereby eliminating the problem of relocating or adding beds in Middlesex. This proposal is in it’s infancy and will take 3-4 years to implement so will not address our immediate problems. However, it is an exciting opportunity when looking long term and with our state’s desire to bring parity to mental health and health care in that it locates the beds for mental health in a hospital setting.
S175 and S92 will be on the House floor this week for a vote. Should they pass both would go back to the Senate.
Any questions on these bills or anything else, please reach out.
Over the last few weeks the focus has been on gun violence prevention legislation. However, in conversations many ask “what else are we doing about school safety and about mental health”.
School Safety - The House unanimously approved H923. This annual bill appropriates funds to infrastructure improvement projects across the state. This year the bill provides $4m for School Safety and Security Grants with an additional $1m in federal funds. Schools may apply for grants to implement safety measures such as intercom systems, window coverings, door looks, etc. The Governor convened a group to perform security assessments of all schools. Once that report is delivered and the Capital Budget is signed into law, schools will be able to apply for a grant.
Mental Health - The general fund budget passed by the House allocated funds to provide community outreach counselors to assist people seeking emergency services in communities (including Essex); provide additional funds to make the Pathways peer warm line available 24/7; and provide funding for additional housing and associated supported services in the Rutland County area. All programs have shown a significant ability to divert people from emergency services to provide the right care within the community. The Capital Budget invests in additional beds for those needing a therapeutic setting but don’t require a hospital level of care. These actions will have the combined effects of keeping individuals out of the ERs and improve the flow of patients between different types of facilities due to more available beds. These investments continue our commitment to increase resources to provide the right care at the right time for all those suffering a mental health illness.
I want to be clear though, I firmly believe gun violence and mental health are two distinct issues. Less than 4% of gun violence is connected to a mental health illness. There is a difference between someone suffering an illness such as bi-polar, schizophrenia, or severe and persistent depression and someone who is socially isolated, angry or resentful and chooses to act out with violence. As a society, we need to appropriately discuss, provide resources and craft effective policy for each population – as the needs and resources for one are most likely not the same in the other.
Recently Representative Giambatista, Dunn and I held a discussion on early childhood trauma and the long lasting effects toxic stress (i.e. poverty, abuse or neglect, exposure to violence, parental substance abuse) can have on an individual. EWSD held a school safety community conversation. I hope these types of conversations continue. We need to continue learning together.
Please feel free to reach out firstname.lastname@example.org or www.lorihoughton.com. Thank you for the opportunity to serve Essex Junction.
Democracy was in action this week with 3 significant bills passing the House and 1 given preliminary approval with a final vote on Tuesday.
As I’m sure most have heard, the House gave preliminary approval Friday to a suite of gun safety measures (S55) including; 1) a ban on bump stocks, 2) a ban on magazine that has a capacity of more than 10 rounds of ammunition, 3) age restriction on purchasing a gun to 21 unless a hunter safety course was taken, 4) expanded background checks, and 5) the sale of seized and abandoned firearms. We expect amendments on Tuesday prior to a final vote. I voted yes for S55. I feel strongly that this law is not taking guns away from law abiding citizens, but may just save a life. Once we move through final passage of the bill, I will provide a detailed explanation of my vote for each section.
As we talk about gun safety legislation, there is a sentiment by many that we aren’t doing anything else to make our schools and communities safer. That is not accurate, it’s just that the gun safety legislation is at this time getting the attention. Through the budget we have provided additional resources to programs helping those having a mental health crisis. The Capital Budget, that we are voting on this week, as it’s written now has $5m allocated for school safety grants. A group appointed by Governor Scott has been assessing, since March, all of our schools to determine what operational and structural changes may be needed to ensure the schools are safe communities. We expect a report in late April. I don’t expect our efforts to stop with these actions. In next weeks blog I will provide more information on these initiatives.
The House passed a balanced budget of $5.8 billion. The all state funds grew only 1.2%; a rate that is one third of the F2018 forecasted gross state product and almost half the Governor’s growth rate target of 2.36%. Reserves are filled to their statutory levels. Commitments to sound financial planning were kept—one-time money was not spent for on-going needs, avoiding holes in future budgets. This budget addresses the needs of Vermonters and provides for the core services of State Government. It is a budget that helps families and communities thrive with investments in economic development, higher education, in preventing substance use disorders, and in reducing the ravages of mental illness. It fully funds development disability services and protects attendant care services for severely disabled individuals. House bill 924.
The House unanimously passed a bill (H897) fundamentally changing the way we pay for and provide special education services. The legislation changes the funding model from a reimbursement model to a census-based model, which provides more flexibility in how funding can be used, is aligned with the State’s policy priorities of serving students who require additional support across the general and special education service-delivery system, and simplifies administration.
The House also passed H911. The bill collapses the top two income tax brackets and lowers all personal income tax rates by 0.2%. It creates a Vermont standard deduction, personal exemption, expands the Vermont earned income tax credit and exempts taxable social security benefits from State income taxes for single filers with less than $45,000 in adjusted gross income and married filers with less than $60,000 in adjusted gross income. The bill also creates a School Income Tax Surcharge which will be used to reduce average residential homestead rates. There was a lot of good in this bill – changing our income tax structure to move away from the federal system so as things change at the federal level we aren’t tied so closely, as well as, the exemption of taxing social security benefits. However, I didn’t agree with the changes to the education financing portion. Specifically I felt that we were merely shifting pots of money while creating a school income tax surcharge. Although with this particular bill we would reduce property taxes approximately 10% (while adding an income surcharge), going forward our legislative body would now have two available tax sources to raise to fund schools. I also didn’t feel there was cost containment in the bill. This bill still as a long way to go, through the Senate, to conference committee then to the Governor’s desk. He has indicated he will veto the bill as is due to this income tax surcharge. I’m hopeful we will find a path forward to ensure at least the income tax and social security benefit changes can be implemented, but hopefully also with changes to the education financing system I can support.
We are doing a lot of work and providing all the details is difficult in one blog posting. I’m always happy to answer any questions, so please reach out email@example.com or 373-0599. Thank you for the continued opportunity to serve Essex Junction.
I was honored to be asked to speak at the Essex High School student led walk out. A powerful morning seeing hundreds of students filling the bleachers and hearing 7 others speak from their heart. Our students are making change happen!
Below are my remarks,
Thank you to each of you out here today. Because of each of you and your actions I know my 9 year old son will have a brighter, safer future. Thank you!
I was asked to speak to how youth not of voting age can make change?
I say you can do a lot and you already are: today you are showing our leaders that not only are you willing to stand up for what you think is right – you can make change happen. You are moving us forward!
What else can you do if you can’t yet vote? Reach out to those who can. I may have been elected by residents of Essex Junction that are able to vote, but I represent all residents of Essex Junction – all ages. Same goes for Representative Giambatista, your six Chittenden County Senators and your federal delegation – Senator Leahy, Senator Sanders and Representative Welch. I know some of you don’t live in Essex Junction – find out who your representative is and contact them. Our job is to listen to the wants and needs of our constituents than craft policy. I haven’t heard from a single one of you on what you want and what you feel will make you safer in your schools and community. You need to reach out – call, email, text, write, knock on my door – do it!
In Vermont 17-year olds can vote in the primary election provided they turn 18 before the general election. This year that means if you will be 18 on or before the General Election on Nov 6th you can vote in the primary election Tuesday Aug 14. So some of you 17 year olds can vote this year. I have two challenges for everyone that votes:
Educate yourself – how does government work? What is the process for a bill to become a law? Democracy is messy and it’s definitely not easy but it’s our system and one can be more effective navigating the system when they understood the system. Come to the statehouse (Dylan and I would be happy to help make that happen), take a government class, talk to elected members of our community.
Understand the issue - Spend time reading and listening to reputable publications. Seek out differing opinions. You may learn something that strikes a chord with you, a viewpoint you never thought of. Find the experts. Follow legislation. Right now there are several gun safety bills moving through the statehouse – find out what they are, read them and let your representative know how you feel about them. But safety is not just a gun issue – what else as a community do we need to address – is it more counselors, reform of school discipline, anti-bullying, something no one else has thought of? You all have grown up in the digital age – you know you can find anything online – be careful of what you believe as fact, but use it to understand all you can.
Learn the art of conversation – put down your phone, look the person in the eyes - ask questions, listen and respond respectfully and honestly. I read recently, “Conversations, as they tend to play out in person, are messy—full of pauses and interruptions and topic changes and assorted awkwardness. But the messiness is what allows for true exchange.” This is so true – don’t shy away from it. Yesterday I read an article about kids from Chicago being invited to meet with kids from Parkland, FL. Two groups that couldn’t be more different – one that deals with gun violence daily and one that was one of the safest places to live. Economically, racially diverse kids – but they talked. I’m sure their conversations were messing and full of awkwardness – but they talked. You can do it here - Engage someone who has a different opinion than yours, engage someone you’ve never talked with, engage the new person in school, engage the one sitting by themselves at lunch. Policy change by itself doesn’t often achieve the long lasting outcome we seek for complex problems. A cultural shift is needed for change to truly take hold and it all starts with conversation.
Lead by action – Anyone can talk or complain, action shows you are committed to a cause. For instance, April 2nd the school district is holding a safety forum – if this is an issue important to you – come - engage. Write or call your representative, create a petition for an issue that is really important to you. Become active in local organizations that have a mission that speaks to you. Have an idea but don’t know where to begin? Ask around – you can always reach out to me. Action leads to progress and change.
And one of the most important - Know yourself - Self-discovery continues throughout our lives but you are all in the thick of it now. Pay attention to your heart, to what is important to you, to what values you hold dear. They might be different than what is important to your friends or even your parents. That’s okay. Be true to yourself and commit to those actions and issues that are important to you.
Remember the future is yours – INSIST ON IT!
We made it to crossover. Crossover is the date set by both parties when all bills must be voted out of policy committees to be considered for a full vote in their respective chamber and to then crossover to the other body this year. Crossover for money bills is March 15th.
Many good bills came out of committees in this last week, but gun violence prevention legislation took center stage.
The gun violence prevention legislation passed by the House on Friday included four critical parts: 1) It would put current practice into law which gives the judge discretion to require any individual who is a risk to themselves or others to turn over weapons as a condition of pre-trial release, 2) Empowers a State’s Attorney or the Attorney General’s office to petition a court to issue an order temporarily restricting a person’s access to guns when they pose a danger to self or others (commonly called a 'Red Flag' bill), and 3) Provides protection to a victim of domestic assault by allowing a law enforcement officer, in certain circumstances, to remove a firearm from the scene if the removal is necessary for the protection of the officer, the victim, or another person, 4) Creates a felony charge for the possession of a firearm on school grounds with intent to harm.
The red flag bill passed by the House differs from the Senate’s passed extreme risk protection bill in two key ways: 1) the House requires preponderance of evidence while the Senate version requires clear and convincing evidence and 2) guns may be kept for up to a year in the House version and 60 days in the Senate version.
These two bills, known as H675 and S221 will be reconciled between the two bodies in the coming weeks. Additionally the Senate passed S.55, which requires mandatory background checks for private gun sales and raises the minimum legal age to purchase a gun from 16 to 21. This legislation will now head to the House.
Gun violence prevention discussions are often emotionally charged. After listening to the House debate this week, I believe no one is taking their role lightly. I urge readers to reach out to their Representatives and Senators with questions and concerns.
In the healthcare committee, on which I serve, we focused this first half of the session on changes made at the federal level that would impact the stability of the Vermont healthcare insurance market as well as needed legislation around the Green Mountain Care Board, our Health Information Exchange and the All Payer Model. However, we voted out a bill Friday that will now head to the House floor that I’m very passionate about - breast cancer screening. Currently screening by a mammogram is considered preventative and no co-pay or deductible is charged. However, if a person has a mammogram and is called back for further review or comes in for that initial mammogram because they have symptoms those are now considered a diagnostic exam and co-pays and deductibles are charged. We heard testimony that people are not coming back for additional screening due to the costs. Our bill will require breast cancer screening be covered without co-pays and deductibles. Representation Betsy Dunn sponsored this legislation and myself and 45 other representations co-sponsored. I look forward to the vote on the House floor.
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: