Peter Hirschfeld

Reporter

Peter Hirschfeld covers state government and the Vermont Legislature. He is based in VPR’s Capital Bureau located across the street from Vermont’s Statehouse.

Hirschfeld is a leading Vermont journalist who has covered the Statehouse since 2009, most recently as bureau chief for the Rutland Herald and Times Argus. He began his career in 2003, working as a local sports reporter and copy editor at the Times Argus.

Ways to Connect

What promises to be one of the highest-profile political fights of the 2014 session got underway in earnest Tuesday when supporters of a bill that would require employers to supply paid sick days staged an opening day rally inside the Statehouse.

Dressed in the red T-shirts that have come to signify their organization, members of the Vermont Workers Center, the group leading the push, said it’s time “to hold our legislators accountable to our health and dignity in Vermont.”

Angela Evancie / VPR File Photo

In a rare appearance by a sitting governor before a legislative committee, Gov. Peter Shumlin Tuesday took responsibility for problems on the new health insurance exchange, but said the shortcomings only reinforce his case for a publicly financed, universal health care system.

“No one is more disappointed than I am that we fell short of our rollout in the exchange, and I take responsibility for those failures,” Shumlin said. “I know that we have work to do to restore Vermonters confidence in our ability to get health care right.”

VPR/ Peter Hirschfeld

Two years ago, the proposed merger of Vermont’s two largest electric utilities triggered a debate over the adequacy of the state’s regulatory system. Now, a bill borne out of that dispute will look to give regular Vermonters more sway in the rate-setting process.

Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

With midterm congressional elections less than a year away, partisan bickering on Capitol Hill isn’t likely to end anytime soon. But as he prepares to head back to work after the holiday recess, Senator Patrick Leahy says he’s optimistic Democrats and Republicans will come to terms this year on some key pieces of legislation.

Vermont is one of three states that don’t require their elected officials to disclose their financial interests. But a new organization being bankrolled by a former Wall Street executive says that needs to change.

Bruce Lisman came on the political scene in Vermont only about two years ago. But he’s trying to use his personal fortune to fast track his influence.

In 2007, state leaders created a high-profile task force and gave it a daunting challenge: Cut childhood poverty by half in 10 years.

As the effort by the Childhood Poverty Council moves into its sixth year, however, the number of children living below the federal poverty line has actually increased, according to U.S. Census data. And top officials and advocates say the goal will almost certainly go unrealized.

“I am quite pessimistic about that,” Human Services Secretary Doug Racine told the council last week.

Chronic errors in payments to beneficiaries of its food-buying assistance program have landed the state in hot water with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has handed down hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties.

Gov. Peter Shumlin said increases in the payroll tax will “play a major role” in the public financing system he wants to use to fund single-payer health care.

The public discussion over single-payer has taken a back seat of late to the health insurance “exchange” set to come online in the beginning of October. The new online marketplace, a product of the federal Affordable Care Act, will offer consumers a platform from which to comparison shop from a more strictly regulated slate of coverage options.

A federal tax reform under consideration in Congress could substantially increase the cost of roads, bridges, buildings and other infrastructure funded by bonds, according to State Treasurer Beth Pearce.

Among the revenue-generating tax reforms in the budget proposal unveiled by President Barack Obama earlier this year is a plan to reduce the federal tax exemption on interest earned on municipal bonds.

Even with the recent spike in the unemployment rate this summer, Vermont remains one of only eight states in the nation with a jobless rate below 5 percent, a figure touted often by Gov. Peter Shumlin as evidence of this state’s relative economic health.

Paradoxically, however, the number of Vermonters who report being employed has actually been on the decline for well more than a year. And one analyst says the rosy unemployment rate obscures a more alarming trend in the local labor market.

Toby Talbot / AP

She may have resigned her high-profile post as chairwoman of the Green Mountain Care Board, but Anya Rader Wallack’s role in health care reform in Vermont is far from over.

Rader Wallack, who departed her post less than two weeks ago, is on the verge of inking a $100,000 contract with the state to oversee the use of a $45 million federal grant. In her work on the “State Innovation Model” grant, Rader Wallack will seek to propel many of the same objectives pushed by the Green Mountain Care Board.

When Commissioner of Financial Regulation Susan Donegan in May denied the Vermont Health CO-OP’s bid to become the state’s third health insurance company, she laid out two paths for the embattled organization: Appeal her decision to the Vermont Supreme Court, or begin afresh with a new application.

It chose neither.

The would-be insurance startup is instead asking Donegan to reopen the docket and reconsider an earlier decision in which she panned not only the CO-OP’s business model but the integrity of the management team that developed it.

Teri Motley is getting scared.

She isn’t worried about her own welfare so much as that of her 40-year-old son, who is among approximately 2,700 Vermonters with developmental disabilities receiving “home- and community-based service” waivers designed to keep them active in local communities.

The source of Motley’s angst lies in a proposed policy change by the Shumlin adminstration, which is seeking new flexibility over the funds appropriated to people like her son.

As if persistent rains haven't done enough to thwart outdoor recreation this year, state health officials say heavy runoff in recent weeks could turn rivers, ponds and lakes into breeding grounds for algae blooms and disease-causing pathogens.

Some of the wettest months on record have ensured an oversupply of nutrients in Lake Champlain and elsewhere, heightening the risk of blue-green algae blooms that sometimes contain toxins. Experts say the high waters of late could also translate into increased levels of E. coli, which can signal the presence of other unhealthy bacteria.

The problems began in the spring of 2012, when state officials decided to change how they determine whether disabled children in Vermont are eligible for government-subsidized home care.

The Department of Health discarded its old evaluation tool in favor of one borrowed from Wisconsin, which would from then on be used to determine whether the state was properly allocating “personal care services” to the approximately 2,200 kids served by the program in 2011.

Disability advocates were almost immediately alarmed.

A prospective health insurance carrier panned by state regulators last month has overhauled its governing board in an attempt to rehabilitate its reputation and win the right to sell policies in Vermont.

A land sale in East Montpelier is attracting a lot of attention, and it’s because the buyer of the property is Governor Peter Shumlin, and the seller is now publicly expressing remorse about the sale.

Peter Hirschfeld has been covering the story for the Vermont Press Bureau, and he joins VPR's Mitch Wertlieb for our Friday Regional Report.

Click listen to hear the interview.

They are “severely functionally impaired.” And they are among the highest-dollar offenders under watch at the Department of Corrections.

The cost to house these troubled, often aggressive convicts in community placements outside prison walls has vexed budget writers for years. The price tag for a single offender can exceed $500,000 annually. And while the six-figure expenditures are relatively rare, they have become budget-busters at an Agency of Human Services beset by fiscal pressures elsewhere.

Two years ago, lawmakers endowed a five-person panel with the power to tell doctors how much they can charge patients for health care services. Now, some physicians with private practices say the rate-setting authority could put them out of business.

As part of a health care reform initiative launched under Gov. Peter Shumlin, lawmakers have intensified oversight of the medical industry, and granted unprecedented powers to a board that now regulates doctors and hospitals.

Job losses in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene were in many cases temporary, lasting only as long as it took businesses to repair damage from the flood.

The financial impact of those layoffs has been more lasting, but lawmakers may have found a way to soften the blow.

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