School Closures and Legislative response to COVID-19
Update for Constituents, March 15, 2020
Thank you for understanding that the COVID-19 epidemic's impact in Vermont is changing daily and sometimes hourly. Your State Representatives continue to work from home, in our communities, and via conference call to serve you.
Currently the legislature is in recess until March 24th and the State House itself is closed. Please read on for an update on schools, as well as a summary of actions the Legislature has taken to help Vermont and Vermonters during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At 3:15pm this afternoon, the Governor issued a statewide directive to close Vermont prek-12 schools from Wednesday, March 18th through Monday, April 6th. This extraordinary action was initiated to protect our communities from the spread of COVID-19, popularly known as Coronavirus. Vermont has a local control education delivery system. This means that the Governor’s order will need to be implemented by local school districts, in consultation with the State Agency of Education. You should follow MAUSD's website for details as to how the closure will be rolled out.
I recognize our schools’ connections to our community, and their many links to our childcare system, afterschool programs and other activities. I know any disruption will come with challenges. This measure was taken in the interest of public safety. Our school administrators, educators, and staff have a very difficult job ahead -- I encourage you to follow their updates.
AT THE STATEHOUSE
Last week, Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson asked House Committees to address the ramifications of COVID-19 in Vermont and what actions we can take. Each committee developed a list and— when legislation was called for— legislative counsel drafted it, committees took testimony and worked to edit it, and those committees came to the House Floor where we voted unanimously to approve each piece of legislation. We remained at the State House until our work was complete, working across party lines and suspending rules as we moved quickly throughout a short 24 hour period.
What I describe below are bills passed in the House. Before the bills below become law, there still must be action in the Senate to pass them, and then the Governor needs either to sign passed bills or let them become law without his signature. We are closely monitoring what the Federal Government is doing and how their legislation will impact us.
VERMONT’S FINANCIAL PREPAREDNESS
As states prepare for the uncertainty of COVID-19, it’s important to know the status of Vermont’s finances. The House Commerce and Economic Development Committee took extensive testimony on the status of Vermont’s finances. State Treasurer Pearce verified that Vermont is in good financial health. We have a strong cash position, fully funded reserves, and we are able to pay our obligations through disruptions.
INDIVIDUALS HAVING TROUBLE WITH LOAN PAYMENTS
If you are having difficulty with loan payments, whether they are car loans, credit cards, mortgages, business loans or other obligations, contact your lender immediately. The Vermont Economic Development Authority, credit unions, and banks will work with borrowers to the maximum extent possible to alleviate financial pressure.
BUSINESSES EXPERIENCING FINANCIAL STRAINS
The Vermont Economic Development Authority outlined a proposed emergency, low-interest loan program for Vermont businesses to enable them to weather cash flow shortages caused in part by the COVID-19. While not available yet, VEDA has experience administering such loan programs and is gearing up their staff to help struggling businesses.
UNANIMOUSLY PASSED IMMIGRATION STATUS RESOLUTION
The House unanimously passed a Resolution urging the federal government refrain from arresting or detaining individuals based on their immigration status in any healthcare settings and suspend implementation of the Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds Rule for the duration of the pandemic emergency.
DRIVERS LICENSE AND VEHICLE SUSPENSION
Finally, the House passed a bill that would relax driver license and vehicle inspection requirements during the COVID-19 state of emergency.
UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE FOR EMPLOYEES WITH EMPLOYER PROTECTIONS
The House passed a bill to adapt unemployment insurance eligibility to make it clear that COVID-19-affected businesses and individuals are eligible for unemployment benefits (H.681). This includes individuals who need to self-quarantine; those who are infected; those who need to care for people who are infected; and businesses that need to shutdown.
Through previous legislation, we had already eliminated waiting periods and streamlined application processes. The Commissioner of Labor assured us that the Department can operate on a skeleton staff to service benefits since unemployment benefits are considered an essential service in their contingency planning.
Ensured employers’ unemployment insurance experience rating is not affected by COVID-19 related claims— striking the a balance between avoiding the creation of incentives for unnecessary layoffs and eliminating disincentives to allow for layoffs— all in order to protect public health and the health of our businesses. Thus, employers’ rates will not go up in the same way they would from different layoff scenarios.
Finally, if/when the federal government declares a national emergency, the state would be exempted from a few restrictions currently in place and we could expand benefits further.
HEALTH CARE AND HUMAN SERVICES
The House prioritized a package (H.742) to ensure our healthcare and human services continuum has the tools on hand to provide the care needed to Vermonters while ensuring we sustain our system. The bill must pass through the Senate and be signed by the Governor.
-Gives broad authority to the Department of Financial Regulation to waive or limit Vermonters out of pocket expenses related to COVID 19 diagnosis, treatment and prevention and may suspend high deductible plan requirements for the purchase of prescription drugs.
-Ensures Vermonters with chronic maintenance medications to always have a 30 day supply on hand by allowing them to refill prescriptions early.
-Expands pharmacists ability to refill prescriptions for which there is no refill or the provider authorization has recently expired.
-Buprenorphine prescription renewals may be refilled without an office visit by an authorized provider.
-Expands support to Vermonters needing nutrition services as a result of COVID-19.
-Expands access to telemedicine by allowing providers licensed in nearby states to provide services related to COVID-19.
-Allows for appropriate healthcare delivery by telephone for Medicaid members.
-Sustainability of our system: Streamlines the process for the Agency of Human Services to fund providers in the state to sustain them through the healthcare crisis.
HEALTH CARE WORKFORCE
The bill would allow the appropriate agencies to issue temporary licenses to permit healthcare providers licensed in other states to practice in Vermont, as well as, retired medical practitioners to return to the workforce temporarily.
Regarding healthcare and human services agencies overseeing hospitals, nursing homes, home health agencies and child care and more—-the Agency of Human Services, would be able to waive or permit variances of state rules to providers to ensure the continuation of operations with a reduced workforce. The bill would also allow flexible staffing arrangements that are responsive to our evolving pandemic needs.
The bill would loosens Medicaid and commercial insurance credentialing requirements to allow for movement of providers across the system.
Call 211 for information. Please go to healthvermont.gov/covid19 for the most up-to-date information and guidance about COVID-19.
Call Health Department Epidemiology at 802-863-7240. If you are sick or concerned about your health: Contact your health care provider by phone.
Do not go to the hospital, except in a life-threatening situation.