Saturday, April 22, 2017

April 21, 2017 Legislative Update

Legislative Update
Rep. Anne Donahue
April 21, 2017

Into the final two weeks: from fun, to mundane, to the “big ones.”
On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of joining with Governor Phil Scott and Rep. Patti Lewis in welcoming the Norwich Cadet hockey team, winners of the national Division III championship, to the statehouse.
The Governor read a proclamation congratulating the team, and Patti and I presented copies of the House resolution and a special resolution honoring Coach Mike McShane for his accomplishments, including this season’s 700th win.
The players, in turn, presented Scott with a team shirt with his name on it – which he promptly put on.
Don’t panic based on rumor. Vermont is not (yet) plunging into the battle over multiple-stall gender-neutral bathrooms. What we passed last week simply says you can’t label (or restrict) a single, locked-room bathroom for any one gender.
This is probably a victory for women – who often have to wait in line while a men’s room sits empty – and a loss for men – who might now have to wait for an open bathroom.
But if anyone wants to see an impressive way to solve the multi-stall issue architecturally, they need go no farther than the Capital City Grange hall in Berlin.
News Media Shield Law
As a lifelong journalist and the daughter of a lifelong journalist, I probably surprised many with my opposition to the news media shield law that passed 140-2 on the House floor.
I suppose my vote was partly in honor of my father, who imbued in me the principles of freedom of the press. As he said, any time the government imposes a definition on who is a journalist and what content constitutes journalism, we are imposing government control on the press. A shield law that protects journalists from subpoenas carves out such definitions.
Interestingly, the head of Vermont Press Association contacted me to say he agreed with my position as representing “constitutional purity,” but wanted me to change my vote to provide practical protections. On this issue, I chose constitutional purity.
Samples of “Small Stuff”
We get complaints about being in session too long and mucking around too much passing more and more laws. There were several examples last week of some of the work that really does need doing, even if it doesn’t make the headlines.
Supervising a practice driver while drunk. We all agree that driving under the influence should be illegal, but there was an oversight in the law. Nothing said drunk driving includes being the adult with a license who is supervising a 15-year-old who is practicing driving on a learner’s permit.
Yikes. That needed fixing.
Notary publics. We have a nice, comfy style for authentication of signatures by a notary public. It’s easy to become a notary and a stamp isn’t needed.
We’re in a new era with electronic capabilities, and we also need to be in sync with other states if we want our documents to count elsewhere. I’m not thrilled with the extent of the new regulations, but I need to accept the due diligence of the committee that worked on the bill, and an upgrade was definitely needed.
Sometimes the longest debates on the House floor involve “small stuff.” Last week it was over the “check engine” lights on cars, and the impact of mandatory inspection failure solely because of a potentially faulty indicator light. This is in particular given the new electronic automated vehicle inspection system instituted this spring by the Department of Motor Vehicles.
It’s always refreshing when there is a vigorous but completely non-partisan debate. There was passion over the possible impacts on air quality contrasted against the costs, particularly for persons with low income, for repairs to these expensive electronic systems.
The Transportation Committee supported a proposal to defer the standards for a year to allow a fuller review of the repair options, and despite the opposition, the amendment eventually passed on a 127-11 vote.
Back from the Senate
My Health Care Committee’s bill to allow minors to seek out counselling without consent from parents if they are struggling with sexual identity questions has come back from the Senate with a big change. The bill now allows minors to consent to counselling, regardless of the reason.
It’s a big expansion, but it has some logic. If the reason a minor is afraid to have a parent consent is because of abuse at home, instead of sexual identity, shouldn’t they also have that access? Are they not just as much at risk of greater harm – including self-harm – if they can’t get help?
When I was preparing to present our narrower bill in the House, I discovered that 34 other states hold that broader position. Our committee will need to assess how we respond.
Family Leave
The family leave act bill may be coming to the floor this week, and it’s one I have very mixed feeling about. Please send input!
I think it’s something we really need and ought to have: the ability to get paid time from work for a new child or family member with a serious illness, paid for by a state-run insurance program.
The problem with an optional program is there likely wouldn’t be enough takers. But do we need the government to step in and take the money from everyone’s paycheck to achieve it?
It is only a small amount of money – about .14 percent of salary, up to $150,000 -- and has a big payoff for our neighbors in need. I’m certainly influenced by seeing my brother’s ability to take long weekends to be with my Mom here in Vermont while she was in hospice care, thanks to having this program in New Jersey.
School Districts
It’s been said many times that a law can be simple, or it can be fair, but it cannot be both. As soon as you start carving out situations to be fair in all circumstances, you get complex very quickly.
The bill coming to the floor this week adds another layer of complexity to the allowable school districts governance structures under Act 46, the law from two years ago that aims to improve education and maybe save some costs by requiring mergers into larger, combined, districts.
So what is a Three-by-One Side-by-Side Structure? It’s a new option for mergers, allowed under some situations, and with all sorts of defining characteristics. I read the bill carefully, and I sure can’t figure it out! I’ll be listening closely to the explanation when it is presented on the floor.
The capital construction bill, the transportation bill, and the state budget are the three “must pass” bills before the session ends, and are due back from the Senate next week. Because of the Governor’s veto threat, I don’t anticipate the Senate proposing new taxes to float a higher budget.
New financial estimates have come in, however, that project higher revenue next year from our existing tax base. It remains to be seen whether the Senate will want to capture that for added spending, or put more aside for much-feared federal budget cuts.
We’ve all been told to save the last week in October for a possible special session of the legislature to reassess our budget status if there are major changes from Washington. The target is to finish the current session a week early so that if we have to come back, it will not be at an added burden to the state budget.
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

Friday, April 7, 2017

April 7, 2017 Legislative Update

Legislative Update
Rep. Anne Donahue
April 7, 2017

It’s the calm before the storm. The House has passed the budget and sent it to the Senate, and we’re back in committees reviewing bills from the Senate, with little action on the House floor. Within the next few weeks, anything significant for this year will start seeing a lot of action, because once the Senate sends the budget back, the clock starts ticking for the end of the session.
Senate Health Care Bills
Our committee is reviewing 7 bills passed by the Senate, and we will not get to all of them this year, so we are identifying priorities. Others can still be taken up in the second half of the biennium in January.
On the top of the priority list is S.133, “An act relating to examining mental health care and care coordination,” which is reviewing the public mental health system in Vermont. My first reaction is that it calls for too much study, and not enough action, given the crisis we are confronting as a state. We have testimony scheduled for much of next week.
We will also be hearing testimony next week on a bill that would mandate standards for circulating nurses in hospital operating rooms. I’m concerned that we may be micro-managing the medical profession if we step into this one.
We will likely act favorably on a Senate proposal that requires open meetings (and sets some parameters) for the governing bodies of accountable care organizations.
We are also close to finishing work on a proposal for health insurance coverage of services provided via telemedicine. It’s all part of our brave new world in health care, and holds out promise for increasing access to care in a rural state like ours, as well as reducing some costs. But is it really the same as, for example, seeing a therapist face-to-face?
We are a bit leery, and so are adding an informed consent requirement that lets patients know what might differ in telemedicine service delivery, and that they can discontinue it at any time if they are uncomfortable.
Vermont passed the nation’s most aggressive law some 10 years or so ago to block pharmaceutical companies from buying access to medical professionals through meals or other gifts, including at conferences. The pharma companies have fought back by denying Vermont doctors access to conference lunches and dinners – instead of letting them simply pay their own way.
So the Senate has passed a bill that would once again allow for that proverbial “free lunch.” It’s supported by the Vermont Medical Society, but we’ve been getting a lot of emails from doctors saying they are proud of Vermont’s standards.
I find it a bit of a double standard when we legislators gather around for the free munchies being offered in the cafeteria by one interest group or another, but think doctors can’t withstand influence from drug companies. On the other hand, big Pharma is probably more invidious in its intentions than the Alzheimer’s Association (free ice cream this week) or the Bar Association (wine and cheese) that want to bend our ears.
The final bill from the Senate is a bill for generic substitution of what are called, “biological products.” Most drugs consist of pure chemical substances, while biological products are made from a variety of natural sources (human, animal or microorganism) and replicate natural substances such as enzymes, antibodies, or hormones in our bodies.
This newly expanding form of drug therapy is very expensive, and interchangeable versions are expected to be coming to the market soon. This bill would require pharmacy substitution of “interchangeable biologics” in the same way that generic substitutions now occur, in other words, unless otherwise directed by your doctor.
Worker’s Compensation
A bill related to worker’s compensation voted out by our committee unanimously weeks ago has finally emerged from the House Commerce Committee on a 9-1-1 vote after lengthy discussion and debate. (A bill that comes under the subject jurisdiction of more than one committee must be reviewed by each such committee.)
It would establish two things:
-          That a mental condition that is directly caused by a work event is covered by worker’s comp in the same way other injuries or work-related diseases are (in other words, parity); and
-          That in the case of emergency first responders who experience post traumatic stress disorder, a presumption would exist that it was caused by the work event, unless proved to the contrary.
It’s amazing to me that it’s taken almost 20 years since first passing our health insurance parity bill for mental health we are finally recognizing that worker’s comp, as well, needs to treat equally all health conditions that are caused on the job.
The argument against this new bill has been that it will raise worker’s comp insurance rates – the same argument made against the parity bill in 1998, and soundly disproven.
I will never forget when I first discovered in 1996 that because I made the mistake of “choosing” the wrong illness, my hospitalization for major depression wasn’t covered by the health insurance I was paying for.
I testified at a legislative hearing that next year in support of the parity bill. It was the first time I had ever entered the State House, and it was the beginning of the trajectory in advocacy work that has led me to a place on the State House floor. I will be proud to speak here in support of parity, once again.

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