Statehouse Headliners: Trump tax cut to reduce VT health insurance premiums; local Planned Parenthood may lose $750,000

By Guy Page

The 2017 federal tax cut will reduce Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont (BCBSVT) health insurance premiums by about 1 percent next year, the state’s largest insurer told the Green Mountain Care board Feb. 27.

As a regulated company, BCBSVT must return its federal tax windfall to ratepayers. The total sum is estimated at $2 million to $3 million. Also, thanks to the 2017 federal tax cuts, BCBSVT will return to ratepayers every dollar of another tax credit totaling $31 million over the next four years.

This Trump tax cut reduction in health insurance rates follows a similar reduction in electricity rates. Green Mountain Power, the state’s leading electricity utility, announced in January it would return $6 million in federal tax savings to ratepayers.

Ricin maker at Shelburne senior living facility pleads guilty

Betty Miller, the resident of Wake Robin senior living facility who made national headlines last year after she allegedly manufactured the deadly toxin ricin and fed it to fellow residents, has pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court.

According to a May 18 statement by the U.S. Attorney’s office, Miller, age 70, entered into a plea bargain for three years in supervised release from a mental health facility. Sentencing is set for September. Miller reportedly grew castor beans at Wake Robin, followed a ricin recipe, and tested the product at least three times on unwitting fellow residents, in preparation for taking her own life. She was arrested in November. One person fell ill but there were no fatalities.

Planned Parenthood in Vermont could lose $750,000 under Trump funding decision

The U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services has announced that abortion providers will no longer be eligible for federal Title X funding for family planning services such as birth control and cancer screenings. The policy follows a Reagan-era proposal that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991.

At present, every dollar of the annual Title X grant for Vermont goes through the Vermont Dept of Health (DOH) to sub-recipient Planned Parenthood of Northern New England (PPNNE). Other providers — including but not limited to Vermont’s outstanding if underfunded network of community health centers — might wish to provide non-abortion related family services in exchange for the estimated $750,000. It is unknown whether the UVM Medical Center will be barred from Title X funding as a result of its 2017 decision to perform elective abortions.

DOH spokesperson Ben Truman said in a May 22 email to Headliners how the grant eligibility works now:

Eligible entities must have the capacity to meet all Title X program requirements and deliver services, as well as have a proven track record in providing quality clinical care in the delivery of core family planning services; these include but are not limited to Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, Federally Qualified and Rural Health Centers, hospitals and health systems, and other public or private organizations currently providing health and family planning services.

But will PPNNE be eligible under the new federal guidelines? Truman said:

“I’m not entirely clear on the status of the White House’s intended rule change (whether it is simply declared, or must go through an administrative approval process). … Our administration of the grant is consistent, regardless of who is selected as the sub-recipient. The potential applicants would best be able to tell you if they will be able to offer the grant services if the federal restrictions are put into place, and whether they intend to apply.”

What, exactly, will the new federal rule require? And how will the state of Vermont and the politically powerful Planned Parenthood respond? Stay tuned.

Strong ties exist between PPNNE and the leadership of the Vermont Legislature. For example, current PPNNE Vice-President of Public Policy Lucy Leriche represented Hardwick and surrounding towns in the Legislature from 2005-2013, serving as the House of Representatives Majority (Democratic) Leader in  2012-2013. Current assistant majority leader Jill Krowinski (Burlington) until recently was a PPNNE vice-president (Education and Vermont Community Affairs). She also sits on the House Human Services Committee, the “go to” committee for abortion-related legislation. Former Burlington legislator and Lt. Gov. candidate Kesha Ram is a member of the PPNNE Board of Trustees. Furthermore, UVM Medical Center Board of Trustees Chair Allie Stickney is a longtime senior executive of Planned Parenthood organizations across the United States.

The money also flows the other way. In 2016, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England “granted” their Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire Action Funds, which they describe as their advocacy and political arm, a total of $646,340. In addition, in 2016 PPNNE’s Vermont PAC raised and spent $458,973, Vermont Right to Life Treasurer Sharon F. Toborg said.

PPNNE performs 94 percent of Vermont abortions. According to 2016 Vermont Health Dept. vital statistics for 2016 showing 1,298 abortions in Vermont, clinics performed 1,218 abortions compared to 65 in hospitals and 15 in doctor offices. PPNNE is the only known abortion clinic in Vermont.

As Vermont’s “renewable power revolution” relies on fossil fuels, so does New York’s

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has been fighting for years to shut down nuclear power plants in New York, while playing up the value of wind turbines. As the Wall Street Journal reported May 19, the Empire State’s plentiful, affordable carbon-free nuclear power will indeed be replaced by turbines — not wind, but the natural gas-powered variety. Hello, bigger carbon footprint! Exactly the same thing has already happened in Vermont.

Six years after the Vermont Yankee contract expired in 2012, the solar power industry is bemoaning the state’s failure to reach its renewable energy goals. According to a flyer inserted in legislators’ mailboxes May 21, solar power produces just five percent of Vermont’s total load. Also, construction of new wind power turbines is anathema to local and state regulators.  The supply vacuum has been filled by southern New England plants burning natural gas — not exactly the “clean renewable future” promised by the Legislature’s pro-renewable energy leaders in their “shut down Vermont Yankee” days.

Meanwhile, decisions by both state and federal regulators on the proposed sale of Vermont Yankee to NorthStar are expected by summer’s end. If regulators approve, the sale is likely to be finalized before the end of the year, at which point NorthStar can begin to implement its plan to fully restore the site by 2026. For more details on supporters and opponents to the plan to revitalize southeastern Vermont through Vermont Yankee site restoration, see my op-ed in the May 23 Greenfield Recorder.

Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.

Image courtesy of Michael Bielawski/TNR