ST. ALBANS — Gov. Phil Scott was remarkably cool and collected when he stopped by the St. Albans Messenger offices on Tuesday, considering he had just been playing kickball with kids at St. Albans City School.
His team defeated a team from RiseVT, 14-0, for those keeping score.
The game was part of a day of events throughout the county in which Scott and various members of his administration visited communities for discussions on the opiate crisis, economic development, the environment, education and agriculture. This was the fourth Capital in Your Community the administration has held.
“When you go to some of these places, they feel as if they’re forgotten,” Scott said.
Infrastructure always comes to the forefront during these visits, Scott said, adding he also hears about property taxes. A need for people and economic activity in communities is also a recurring theme, he said.
“There’s a lot of pride out there, Rutland especially,” Scott said. “Economically, they sense they need some help.’
With Scott was Secretary of Human Services Al Gobeille and Administration Secretary Susanne Young. Gobeille and Scott visited BAART, an area treatment hub for opiates: “There is treatment available for those who want it, no waiting list,” Scott said.
“I felt as though we’re somewhat holding our own, but we need to do more,” said Scott, adding the need for more education, treatment and enforcement.
“Fentanyl has made it a Russian roulette game,” Gobeille added. “If you shoot up, you could die.”
Fentanyl, a powerful opioid, is being mixed with heroin, sometimes without the purchasers’ knowledge. His agency reports it’s spending $75 million a year on opiate addiction, and more is found throughout the human services budget.
The state now has 500 kids aged 5 and under in custody of the Vt. Dept. for Children and Families. Historically, DCF has primarily had custody of older children. “Six-month-old kids, the number is alarming,” he said.
Prior to the kickball game, Scott and Gobeille had lunch with kids who take advantage of St. Albans City School’s free summer lunch program. Gobeille said one of the adults present, who works with the program, told him not to ask kids what they did over the weekend or what they got for Christmas because “you may not want to hear the answers.”
Discussion of addiction inevitably turned to that of prisons. On July 1, the state began providing treatment to incarcerated inmates. The Vt. Dept. of Corrections budget is $160 million, $20 million of which is health care, Gobeille said.
“We don’t have a lot of misdemeanor offenders that are staying in prison,” Gobeille said. “Those that are in prison now need to be.”
Vermont has shifted away from imprisoning people for nonviolent offenses and is mostly imprisoning violent offenders, he explained. Overall, Vermont has 600 fewer inmates than previously projected, with 207 incarcerated out of state.
A proposal to build a large facility somewhere in the state, with St. Albans a leading potential site, is still on the table, Gobeille said.
The initial discussion was sidetracked by the possible use of private contractors to build but not operate the facility. That was just one of several funding options DOC put forward, but it was the one that drew headlines.
A privately operated prison was “never, ever” considered, Scott said.
“We need to have something that has some efficiency to it,” said Gobeille, describing the state’s current system as “a Christmas village” of prisons.
“We’re not saying it has to be in Franklin County,” added Scott.
The proposal is for a facility that would house 925 prisoners, to be built and staffed over 10 years, and includes units for aging and infirm prisoners as well as those with mental health needs. It would return to Vermont all of the state’s out-of-state prisoners.
Shifting to health care, Goebeille said the all-payer system is “stood up and it’s functioning.”
Although all-payer sounds like single-payer, the two are different. Under all-payer, Medicaid and Medicare – and potentially private insurers, should they wish to join – pay health care providers not for each X-ray taken or exam given, but a set fee per person. Proponents argue this payment method gives providers an incentive to help patients stay healthy and avoid expensive, chronic illnesses.
The challenge now is to get more health care providers to agree to be paid this way.
Gobeille said the fact that most people don’t understand how all-payer works isn’t an issue. “Nobody knows how their credit card works at a gas station,” he pointed out.
“People just want good, accessible health care at a price they can afford,” said Scott.
There are still some fundamental disconnects in the system, said Gobeille, suggesting doctors, in particular, often don’t understand what it costs families to have insurance. A family of four earning $100,400, four times the federal poverty level, will pay the price of a new Honda Accord ($23,500) to purchase health insurance, he said.
“The problem with the docs is … they don’t know how much they make,” said Gobeille.
Nurses from the UVM Medical Center are seeking a 24 percent pay increase, which they say is needed to bring their pay in line with others in their profession. Gobeille, the former head of the Green Mountain Care Board, which approves hospital budgets, was asked how the board would respond to such an increase.
“I honestly believe John [Brumsted, CEO of UVMMC] could live on a trend and make the nurses happy,” said Gobeille.
Savings can be found in large budgets like the hospital’s, Gobeille said, leaving unspoken the implication that those savings could be used to pay the nurses.
“I believe that everybody has a responsibility to keep their budget in tact,” added Scott.
Scott also discussed his controversial decision to sign a bill requiring universal background checks for gun purchases, requiring those under age 21 to take a gun safety course before purchasing a gun (unless they are in the military or a police officer), banning bump stocks and high capacity magazines.
Gun rights supporters characterized Scott’s decision as a betrayal, although a recent poll by Vermont Public Radio and Vermont Public Television found that only 25 percent of Vermonters opposed the bill.
“There’s still a lot of anger and disappointment,” Scott said. “There are gun groups, gun owners, who are angry and need to take it out on me.”
He worried that the gun rights bloc might affect his race against fellow Republican Keith Stern of Springfield in the Aug. 14 primary, but the governor emerged victorious.
“I have many people who are happy with what’s happening,” he said, citing his efforts to keep property tax rates down and end income taxes on Social Security benefits.
Asked about Act 46, which in some parts of Franklin County has become even more contentious since the Vt. Agency of Education released its proposal for school district mergers in June, Scott said, “Act 46 is a governance consolidation. We’re not trying to close schools.”
Vermont, he said, needs to bring more people to the state, and one of the ways to do that is to have a strong education system.
Scott praised his new education secretary, Dan French, saying he was “really enthusiastic” about the selection.
French, who has been a teacher, principal and superintendent in Vermont is “ready to hit the ground running,” said Scott. “He commands some respect, so I think he can bring people together.”
On the crisis hitting Vermont’s dairy farmers, Scott said he’s “concerned about the struggles farmers are enduring.”
The price of milk needs to come up, but it is beyond the control of state government, he noted.
Asked about alternatives, such as state support for processing facilities, Scott said, “Our secretary of agriculture is very enterprising. I believe we’ll have some new approaches.”