Lawmakers Take a Look at Health and Human Services

In a normal year, the General Assembly meets for 18 weeks, from early January until mid-May with a week off for a town meeting recess.

The 18-week session plan sets a deadline to finish our work by mid to late May.

To achieve an orderly flow of work to meet that adjournment date, the House-Senate Rules Committee sets what are known as crossover dates. Crossover refers to moving bills over to the other chamber, House to the Senate — crossing over.

This year that date is Friday, March 12, for policy bills and March 19 for those bills that either raise revenue or have an appropriation. In practice what that means is that this next week policy committees, including the one I chair, human services, will be wrapping up work on priority bills that started in the House and passing bills onto the Senate for their consideration.

Just before we left this past week for our Town Meeting recess, the Vermont House passed nearly $80 million in additional COVID-19 relief and recovery aid for Vermonters.

The appropriations committee worked collaboratively with multiple committees including the human services committee to craft this legislation. H.315 provides critical assistance to working families and businesses struggling due to the pandemic. The intent of the funding is to address health disparities, increase social equity, and stimulate economic recovery. More specifically, the bill would provide funding for small businesses that received no federal assistance, continued pandemic-related services for New Americans, community supports for those with mental health issues, one-time stimulus checks for the poorest Vermont families who are involved in the Reach Up program added investment in Vermont Farmers to Families Food Box program so no Vermonter will go hungry, funding to develop housing for Vermonters without a place to live.

The human services committee will be working on three legislative initiatives, more affordable quality childcare, community based care, and addressing health disparities, this coming week so that they make “crossover” and be taken up by the Senate.

High-quality childcare is an investment in Vermont’s future. By increasing access and affordability for Vermont’s families, we help parents stay employed and contribute to their local economies. By increasing childcare worker wages, we can support and grow our early educator workforce. By prioritizing the well-being and development of our children, we are giving the next generation of Vermonters a head-start to success. H. 171 will make these investments a reality. The reforms offered in this bill are based on feedback from Vermont’s parents, providers, employers, and community members. Not only does H.171 make childcare more affordable, it removes barriers to access, ensures fair wages for providers, establishes workforce development programs, and creates a study to identify future revenue sources.

Thousands of Vermonters, from the very young to the very old, are supported by private nonprofit providers who accept Medicaid as payment for services. These providers are often referred to as home and community-based providers. They serve people with a variety of risk factors including, but not limited to, significant health care issues; drug and alcohol use; and support needs related to aging, mental health issues, and developmental disabilities. As a state, our policy reflects the evidence-based findings that people achieve the best care and outcomes when served in their communities, close to friends and family, rather than in institutional settings. However, we have yet to develop a sustainable system to pay for these community-based services. H.153, begins to provide the framework to consider changes and recognize cost of living adjustments to the Medicaid rate reimbursement system for these critical supports to vulnerable Vermonters.

The disturbing reality of health disparities has been brought into sharper focus by the pandemic. The social determinants of health are those economic, environmental and social conditions that influence individual and group differences in health status. A recent Vermont Health Department survey revealed that health disparities are greatest for Vermonters of color, LGBTQIA+ people, those with disabilities, and those living in poverty.

H.210 proposes to: establish the Office of Health Equity; establish the Health Equity Advisory Commission; issue grants for the promotion of health equity; collect data to better understand health disparities in Vermont; and require an additional two hours of continuing education on cultural competency in the practice of medicine.

Please know that I hold your trust in me with great care and responsibility. I deeply appreciate your input. Please reach out with questions or concerns at any time and I hope to “see” you at our next conversation with your legislators on March 22.