Legislative Update
by Devon Green
VAHHS Vice Preident of Governmental Relations

Legislators! They’re just like us! And, just like us, they are deeply tired of saying things like “you’re on mute” over Zoom. We all continue to struggle with the extra steps it takes to do things from a distance, so it comes as a relief that the Governor’s budget address last Tuesday set the agenda for the session as spending the infusion of one-time federal funding to the state, increasing its revenues to $116 million as opposed to the agonizing cuts we were all anticipating a few months ago. 

Part of the governor’s proposal included a $1.25 million tax incentive for nurses which would provide a 100% waiver of income tax in the first year, a 70% waiver of income tax in year two, and a 50% waiver of income tax in year three.

VAHHS has been beating the health care workforce drum for several years. Hospitals all stepped up and met the needs of our community, but as we continue with COVID and look towards its aftermath, as well as the realities of an aging population, we urge legislators to consider the following health care workforce development tools to keep our health care system strong:
  • Tax incentives for nurses
  • Passing the interstate nurse licensure compact
  • Making permanent and expanding the nurse and physician scholarships passed in Act 155 of 2020
  • Extending reimbursement for audio-only telehealth
  • Adjusting the benefit cliff for income-eligible workers

Last Week

Prohibiting firearms in hospitals: VAHHS testified in favor of S.30, which would prohibit firearms in hospitals, government buildings and child care centers. The Senate Judiciary Committee seemed skeptical about limiting a constitutional right and creating more criminal liability. The committee is interested in using the current trespass laws rather than a flat prohibition. VAHHS testified that hospitals, like schools, are uniquely situated and would benefit from a prohibition because security is often already present and hospitals are buildings filled with highly vulnerable individuals. On Friday, Dr. Ryan Sexton, Medical Director of Emergency Operations at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital also testified in favor of S.30 on behalf of the Vermont Medical Society.

Audio-only telehealth reimbursement: The House Health Care Committee heard testimony from the Department of Financial Regulation and both providers and insurers about coverage and reimbursement of audio-only telehealth in the same manner as other telehealth and in-person visits through 2023. Providers have found audio-only a valuable tool, especially in treatment of mental health services and would like to continue providing greater access to care through audio-only telehealth until a viable value-based reimbursement program is established. For an excellent summary of current reimbursement policy and recommendations prepared by Helen Labun from BiState Primary Care Association, go here.

Hospitals 101: VAHHS provided a brief overview of Vermont’s hospital system to the new members of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. The presentation can be found here.

Equitable access to vaccines: VDH Deputy Commissioner Tracy Dolan testified in front of the House Health Care Committee on VDH’s plan for Vermont’s BIPOC population to receive the COVID vaccine, including working with trusted partners to perform targeted education and outreach and producing tranlated videos about the process of registering and receiving a vaccine.

This Week

Extension of COVID-19 regulatory flexibilities: The Senate Health and Welfare Committee and the House Health Care Committee will hold a joint hearing to discuss further extending current COVID-19 regulatory flexibilities.

Audio-only telehealth: House Health Care will continue hearing testimony and discussing coverage and reimbursement for audio-only telehealth.  

In the News
More than 32K Vermonters signed up for vaccinations

With nearly 40,000 Vermonters 75-plus either having been vaccinated or with an appointment penciled in, state health officials are mulling over when to open up the next age grouping.

Governor Phil Scott Friday said unpredictable allotments from federal officials is giving them pause. “We don’t want to open up too quick in case all of the sudden the federal government decides we’re going to get another allotment of more of the vaccine and that would enable us to have more time slots available,” Scott said.

As of Friday, 32,556 Vermonters 75 years and older have scheduled their appointment. AHS Secretary Mike Smith says the state is still on track to get everyone 65 and older at least one dose by the end of winter or start of spring, and many, he says, will have gotten their second dose too.

Smith says the state is trying to prevent wasted shots. There are lists of people who are eligible who could be called at the end of the day if there are any extras and they are advising clinics to use common sense to not waste them.

Officials provided further details about 860 vaccine doses at Springfield Hospital that earlier this week were thought to have been spoiled because of a storage issue. Vt. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine now says the manufacturer, Moderna, has cleared their use after all.
860 doses of Moderna vaccine stored at Vermont hospital cleared to use

The Vermont Department of Health says 860 doses of the Moderna vaccine at Springfield Hospital are cleared for use, after concerns the doses were spoiled for being stored at the wrong temperature.

According to the health department, after a deeper review, Moderna determined late Thursday evening none of the doses were impacted by temperature inconsistencies.

On Tuesday, Springfield Hospital notified state leaders its refrigerated vaccine may have reached a temperature slightly higher than the manufacturer’s recommended maximum.

Public vaccinations begin, offering people hope ‘to be free again’

Nancy Stevens was among the first members of the general public in Vermont to receive the Covid-19 vaccine.

Outside a clinic at Hazen Union High School, the 83-year-old said she was surprised to have snagged an opening-day appointment when the state’s registration system opened on Monday. “I got right through as soon as it opened,” she said.

Stevens, who lives in East Hardwick, has been homebound for the past 11 months. “It’s been tough,” she said. “I miss my family. I used to go places and do things with my family and friends almost every day.” She skipped the usual Thanksgiving and Christmas get-togethers, and still hasn’t met one of her great-grandchildren, who was born almost a year ago.

“I’d like very much to be able to be free again,” Stevens said.

Her vaccination was a first step. More than a thousand Vermonters received their first dose of the vaccine Wednesday, when 25 clinics for the general public opened statewide. More sites will come online in the coming days, according to the Health Department, eventually totaling 54 locations in 39 cities and towns.

All Vermonters 75 and older are eligible to make appointments. About 30,700 people had registered by around 5 p.m. on Wednesday, nearly three-fourths of the eligible population that had yet to receive the vaccine.

Hospitals in the News
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