Health Care

Legislative health committees plan to look back to move forward

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Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, speaks during a meeting of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

With the Covid-19 crisis perhaps finally in Vermont’s rearview mirror, the state’s health-focused legislative committees plan to gather information this winter and spring, before the pandemic’s lessons for the still struggling health system recede too far down the road.

Legislators established new initiatives at a rapid pace during the last biennium in trying to meet evolving pandemic needs. Now it’s time to look back at how well those policies were carried out and think about their future, according to Rep. Lori Houghton, D-Essex Junction, the returning ranking member of the House Health Care Committee, and Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, who is likely to return as chair of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. 

“We need to review the programs that we created and funded over the past two years, with all the money that came in,” said Houghton, the likely choice to succeed the previous chair, Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, who did not seek reelection this year. “We need to make sure the money is out the door and that the programs are working.”

For example, Houghton said, an omnibus workforce bill invested millions of federal pandemic relief dollars into incentives to connect health employers and nurse training programs for apprenticeships. It also filled the coffers of an expanded education-loan forgiveness program for nurses and physician assistants who plan to fill permanent jobs in Vermont. Has that helped at all? 

Waivers for a variety of state professional licensing requirements will expire in March, along with rules around the timing of prescription refills. Houghton wonders if some of that flexibility can or should stay in place. 

The Office of Professional Regulation and the Board of Medical Practice are supposed to have rules ready this summer that guide new permanent telehealth license and registration processes for out-of-state providers in dozens of fields. Houghton’s committee will be asking how that is going, she said.

The state Department of Health was assigned responsibility in 2021 for analyzing the health outcomes for traditionally marginalized groups in Vermont, often called health equity, and to develop benchmarks for progress. Where does that stand? 

And, of course, Houghton said, the committee will be looking to the Scott administration for an update on what the next iteration of the “all-payer” reform agreement looks like. Plus, the Green Mountain Care Board will report on strategies to stabilize funding for the state’s rural hospitals.

“The numbers are not good for some of our hospitals,” Houghton said. “Luckily we haven’t had any close, like they have across the country, but we are not immune.”

For her part, Lyons said, she also wants updates. The Senate chair looks forward to one from an advisory committee set up last summer to make recommendations on how to start spending the state’s opioid settlement funds, which will arrive in annual increments. She also wants to hear about the expected rollout of five new regional mobile crisis response teams this spring.

“That will begin to take some pressure, I'm hoping, off of (emergency departments),” Lyons said. “We want to keep people with mental illnesses out of EDs as much as possible and make sure we have the community services and infrastructure needed, so that they can be stabilized and then find ongoing support.”

As for new measures, the Senate committee will be in the middle of major Democratic initiatives to promote housing development and affordable child care. Lyons said she also expects to see progress on a multiyear effort to bring Medicaid reimbursements for primary care, run by the state, up to the same rates provided by Medicare, run at the federal level. 

Also, Lyons plans to reintroduce a bill from last session that would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, galvanized by recent success in other states. A similar ban in Massachusetts went into effect in 2020. A California bill approved that same year survived a ballot-initiative repeal effort in November. This month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal mounted by R.J. Reynolds, the maker of Newport menthol cigarettes and vape products. 

Houghton and Lyons said much of their efforts in the first few months will be on making sure that new incoming lawmakers have the resources they need to learn about the committees’ areas of focus. A third of the 30 seats in the Vermont Senate will be filled by new members, and more than 40 percent of the 150 House members will be newcomers. 

Houghton said diplomatically, “I think we need to set the expectations really clearly that it is going to be a slow start.”   

Lyons put it more bluntly:  “I’m going to have new people on my committee, so this is not going to be rapid fire,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Lori Houghton's name.

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Kristen Fountain

About Kristen

Kristen Fountain covers health care and human services for VTDigger. She has lived in Vermont for 18 years, currently in the Northeast Kingdom. She previously was a staff writer at the Valley News and at the Stowe Reporter/Waterbury Record.


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