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Shumlin touts plans to small business and docs

February 21, 2011

NEAL P. GOSWAMI
Staff Writer
BENNINGTON — Gov. Peter Shumlin made his first visit to the county on Monday since taking office in January, pitching his budget plan and other major initiatives to small business owners, child care providers and doctors.

Shumlin’s themes did not stray far from the message he carried throughout the campaign and since being sworn in last month — the budget must be cut, Internet and cell phone service must improve and
health care costs must be contained if the state is to create jobs.

Speaking to members of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, Shumlin promised an aggressive approach to creating jobs across Vermont, including rural areas. “We have an extraordinary opportunity to create jobs all over the state, not just what we’re used to — governors who focus on Chittenden County,” Shumlin said.

The administration and state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are focused on the same goal, he said.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen a time in Vermont history, or at least recent history, where it’s more clear what the job is. We’re united as a state about what the job is, he said. “Sometimes we bicker about whether it’s property taxes or whether it’s health care or whether it’s making sure we have the best schools in the country. The fact of the matter is it’s about jobs and job creation.”

The first step to job creation is balancing the state’s budget, which he said has a $176 million deficit for the 2012 fiscal year. “That’s not a very fun job. You know, I inherited a pretty tough situation,” he said.

Federal stimulus dollars used by former Republican Gov. James Douglas and the Legislature to patch the budget in the past two years have dried up. The only way to close the gap is to make difficult decisions this year that fix structural problems in the budget, Shumlin said.

That means cuts to programs and initiatives that people have come to rely on.

“We need to balance this budget the old-fashioned way by matching our appetite to spend with the ability of Vermonters to feed the appetite. I’ve put a tough budget forward. It’s not one that’s going to make many happy,” he said. “But here’s the promise — if we balance the budget this year, which we will, we won’t be back here next year looking for hundreds of millions of dollars for the fourth year in a row that we can’t seem to find. So that’s a bit of unhappy work but we’re going to get it done.”

Shumlin also laid out “three key ingredients” to job growth, most of which were warmly received by the Chamber members. Broadband Internet and cell service must be available “to every last mile of Vermont by 2013.” A single-payer health care system that contains health care costs will reduce the burden of costs on employers. And investments in education will train workers for the type of jobs available.

Shumlin said he’s seeking an “unusual marriage” between electrical utilities and telecom providers to integrate the same technology everywhere “so that Pownal and Shaftsbury can have the same [Internet] speed as downtown Bennington.” Vermont has fallen behind countries like Bosnia and Vietnam in connectivity. Some permit reform is required to allow utilities to set up poles and lines more quickly.

Leading the nation in health care reform will attract businesses, Shumlin said. In the past eight years the state has doubled spending on health care to over $5 billion annually. “That is the biggest hidden tax on … working-class Vermonters and small business that one can imagine,” he said.

He pledged to seek federal waivers from Washington to implement a single-payer system that “treats health care as a right and not a privilege,” de-couples health care coverage from employment and allows it to
follow a person and that contains cost.

Shumlin said he will also seek strategic investments in early education and higher education to ensure that the workforce in
Vermont is prepared for the available jobs.

“If we get those three things done … and I think we’ve got a really bright future,” he said.

Shumlin delivered his health care reform message to officials and medical staff at the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, too. He asked the staff to join reform efforts and to help shape them.

“We’re in a partnership to try to solve the problem. What we want to do is have the strongest health care system in the country, not the weakest. You all know the system we have is not sustainable. I don’t need to preach to you about it,” he said.

Shumlin told the three dozen or so medical professionals that he envisions a system that pays doctors for the cost of keeping patients healthy rather than for the number of procedures they perform.

Dr. Matt Nofziger, who works for a private orthopedic practice in Bennington, said he doubted whether such a system will provide a better reimbursement than the Medicare and Medicaid rates now offered.

“If it happens we are out of business,” Nofziger said. “We will not be in this state anymore.”

Shumlin said rates would improve under a new medical system and urged the staff to take part in the reform effort. “We are not your enemy, we are your friend. I can understand why you have distrust for government. Come to the table,” he said.

Responding to an inquiry from Dr. Eugene Grabowski, a surgeon, Shumlin indicated his health care reform plan would include tort reform as the cost of medical malpractice insurance for doctors continues to rise.

Shumlin said his plan will look “to ensure people are protected if something egregious happens to them,” but doesn’t
require providers “to undertake procedures that are only being undertaken because of concern about litigation, not because you … it’s going to make someone healthy.”

Thomas Dee, the CEO of SVMC’s parent company, Southwest Vermont Health Care, assured Shumlin that the staff was “not an audience that is afraid of reform.”

He also noted that the state’s provider tax, which allows the state draw down additional federal matching Medicaid dollars by levying a 5.5 percent tax on hospital revenues, is a problem, too. Shumlin has proposed raising the tax to 6 percent for the 2012 fiscal year as a bridge to a newly reformed system, which will start in 2014, at the earliest.

“Something like the provider tax devastates us. We’re probably, on a per-bed basis, the highest hit in the state. So, the concern is not changing, it’s how do we make the change work,” Dee said.

The increase is necessary, however, Shumlin said, to help balance the state’s budget. “I cannot deny that we are asking more of you in the short-term. We are in our provider tax recommendation,” Shumlin said.

Shumlin had a similar message for everyone Monday.  Progress and transformative change must come from Vermont, he said, because Congress is grid-locked and other states are unwilling to act.

“Nothing is going to happen in Washington. In fact, what is going to happen you should be scared of. Truthfully,” he told business owners at the Chamber meeting. “What Congress is planning to do with this budget should give all Vermonters with a heart pause. … I mean, this is serious stuff. If these people really get their way we’ve got some serious challenges.”

Shumlin said it became apparent during recent “baby governor school” meetings for newly elected governors that most states are unwilling to take on tough challenges. For example, Shumlin said, Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott is “trying to butcher the health care system.” And Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker has “got his hands full down there trying to bust the unions.”

“We have an opportunity to do great things in Vermont. While the rest of them want to destroy I think we can rebuild,” Shumlin said.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com

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