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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Senate Supports Plan To Create New Agency For State's Health Care Programs

The Vermont Senate has given its preliminary approval to the biggest restructuring of state government in almost 50 years. Backers of the plan say it's needed to help control health care spending and to properly fund essential social service programs. But Gov. Peter Shumlin opposes this change.

In 1969, the Legislature created the Agency of Human Services to better coordinate all social service programs in state government.

It included the Departments of Health, Children and Families, Corrections, Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, Mental Health, and Medicaid.

More recently, the Department of Health Access and Vermont Health Connect were added.

Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Jane Kitchel is a former Secretary of the Agency. She notes that agency spending now accounts for almost half the entire state budget.

She strongly supports consolidating all of the state's health care programs into a new agency. She says this is needed because rising health care costs make it hard to fund many social service programs.

"I believe that our health care agenda, our health care spending, the enormity of our work ahead has outstripped an organizational construct that was created 40 years ago for a different time," says Kitchel. "And I feel that our services to families and children, in fact, have taken perhaps a back seat to that."

"Our health care agenda, our health care spending, the enormity of our work ahead has outstripped an organizational construct that was created 40 years ago for a different time." — Senate Appropriations chairwoman Jane Kitchel

Chittenden Sen. Tim Ashe, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, supports the change to bring more accountability to the state's troubled health care exchange.

"Anytime you tried to get a handle on where the buck stopped with making Vermont Health Connect work you ran around in circles," said Ashe.

But the plan has its critics. Gov. Peter Shumlin opposes the bill because he says it will hurt the integration of client services within the agency.

"We really believe that it's incredibly important to have seamless government that breaks down barriers, that breaks down silos and works together with all agencies in Human Service, all functions," said Shumlin. 

"Anytime you tried to get a handle on where the buck stopped with making Vermont Health Connect work you ran around in circles." — Chittenden Sen. Tim Ashe

But Sen. Kitchel doesn't think the governor's fears are warranted.

"I do not believe in any way, nor would I support it after 40 years of commitment to serving Vermont children and families, want to do anything that I thought would be detrimental to delivering them service," Kitchel said. 

The measure will come up for final approval in the Senate on Thursday.

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