Sunday, February 5, 2017

Feb 3, 2017 Legislative Update

Legislative Update
February 3, 2017
Rep. Anne Donahue

The first lengthy, contentious and partisan debates occurred in the House last week.
One was almost purely symbolic, on a proposal by Rep. Paul Poirier of Barre City that he said was intended as a way for him to be able to show his opposition to the governor’s school budget proposal.
The other was highly substantive, with the House voting to re-open a settled election after the person who lost made a complaint to the legislature.
School Budgets
The school vote came about when Rep. Poirier tried to amend a minor bill by adding a change in the date for voting on school budgets from March to May. That was a change proposed by Governor Phil Scott in his budget address as a part of an aggressive initiative to reshape our education funding process.
Poirier opposed his own amendment and urged others to defeat it.
Delaying local budget votes would have been the only way for the legislature to have a serious discussion on the various elements of the governor’s proposal this year.
The proposal included the unpopular idea of having zero increases in budgets, and the popular idea of shifting money into pre-school and college education. (It seems to be human nature to want to be getting something for nothing.)
The amendment was defeated, 87-47.
Given that it was essentially acknowledged to be a symbolic vote, I voted for it to express my disappointment that, yet again, we won’t take up any serious cost containment or funding reform this year.
Election Recount
Earlier in the week, we voted on a recommendation by the Government Operations Committee to have our own members conduct a second recount of the ballots in the Orange-1 district (Williamstown, Chelsea, Corinth, Orange, Vershire, Washington, and West Fairlee).
The House, under the state constitution, has the right to rule on the qualifications of its members, so the question was whether the winner of the election was qualified – in other words, whether he won the election fairly.
Rep. Patti Lewis gave a sterling “minority report” from the four Republicans on the committee.
It was pretty generally acknowledged that there was no evidence that there was any fraud or misconduct in the election. There had already been one recount, a judge had verified the outcome of the recount, and another judge has rejected a request for a second recount. So the losing candidate came to the legislature.
The only cloud over the election was the fact that the loser was complaining about it, but the majority party decided that the only way to lift that cloud – to ensure confidence in the system – was for the House to conduct a recount.
I argued that we needed to have some basic reason that called an outcome into question before holding a recount. Otherwise, any losing candidate could get a recount by the House, by virtue of creating such a “cloud” by simply calling out, “it wasn’t fair.”
That argument failed, and the final vote was 76-59 to authorize the recount. (A few brave Democrats, and most of the Independents, voted with the Republicans.)
If as a body we had been bending over backwards to protect the rights of a minority among our members, there might have been some honor in this vote. The election’s 7-vote winner, however, was a Republican, which made this effort by the majority party quite disturbing.
The one small victory in the course of the 5-hour debate was adoption of my amendment to require the Government Operations Committee to return to the House for approval of the policies and procedures they develop to conduct the recount.
Amazingly, the committee was asking for House authority for the recount without saying how it would be done, and refusing to even agree to follow the guidance of state law for recounts. As the committee’s chair told me under questioning on the floor, the constitution allows the House to handle a recount in any way it wants… so the committee was going to develop its own procedures.
Thanks to my amendment, those procedures will now require full House approval before the recount can occur.
The downside, since the committee had not developed them in advance, is that we’ll have to face another long debate when we review them. Agreeing to follow state law would have saved a lot of time. It would also have done a lot more to create confidence that there are no underhanded intentions.
Drug Pricing
In my Health Care Committee last week, we heard from the Attorney General’s office on the outcome of last year’s bill to force some transparency from pharmaceutical companies that jack prices way up on their drugs.
Our committee worked on a tri-partisan basis to develop a consensus bill to require explanation of major price increases. While many states have complained about the impact of these increases on state Medicaid budgets, we are the only state to take action.
We did it carefully to protect confidential “trade secrets” and one result was that, rather than suing us, the companies complied.
Unfortunately, by allowing the Attorney General to keep trade information confidential, the information that was released to us was pretty watered down into general information, instead of being drug-specific or company-specific. It didn’t provide any real insights into how they justify the pricing.
The companies have “pricing committees” that assess when to change a drug’s price. The factors they said they consider in deciding to increase a price included cost effectiveness (meaning the value to patients given the effectiveness of the drug compared to other drugs); the size of the patient population for the drug; investments made and the risks undertaken; creation and maintenance of manufacturing facilities; cost of ingredients; competition, including for drugs in the same class; return on investment; and the percentage of their sales in commercial, Medicare or other government channels.
What was fascinating to me was the result of the state’s work in identifying the ten drugs that we were asking for information on. The criteria – something I suggested just based on what sounded unreasonable as an increase on an existing drug – was to develop a list of existing drugs that had a price increase of 50 percent or more over the past five years or 15 percent or more over the past 12 months.
There were a stunning 8,221 drugs that fit the 50 percent increase category, and 3,975 that fit the 15 percent within one year category. No wonder the average cost per prescription for specialty drugs has tripled over the past seven years.
Pharmacies aren’t the ones seeing that increase. Even chain pharmacies are only making a net profit of about two percent, while the pharmaceutical firms are at 22 percent.
We are determined to try to reshape our new law this year so that we can squeeze more transparency out, while keeping within the required confidentiality laws.
Silly bill of the month: A proposal to fine stores that prop open their outside doors if the heat or air conditioning is running. OK, I get it. Someone’s worried about energy efficiency. But it seems that stores would want to watch their own energy bills, and if the door is propped open, there might just be some other reason.
Do we really want to send energy police around to hunt down stores that have a wedge in the door?
This bill does offer a good opportunity to remind folks that hundreds of bills are introduced each year, some of them purely on the request of someone’s constituent. It doesn’t mean it will get even five minutes of a reviewing committee’s time.
When the news media highlights a newly introduced bill it can create an automatic misperception that it is under serious consideration. It might just be that it caught a reporter’s eye as unusual or silly… just as I am doing with this “door prop” bill.
Thank you for the honor of representing you. Please contact me with your questions and your opinions. You can reach me by message at home at 485-6431, at the statehouse at 828-2228, or at this email at