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5.22.2020 – Lead Testing in Schools, Emergency Service Provider Wellness Commission, and Captive Insurance

As I write this week, I’m beginning to think that it should be titled “Notes from Windham” rather than “Notes from Montpelier.” One of the blessings of being home is that I’ve gotten to watch spring happen in Windham, which I usually miss because it happens so quickly and I’m usually in Montpelier. In a matter of days, we go from a slight tinge of green on the mountainsides to full-fledged leaves on the trees.

We continue to do business via Zoom, have wrapped up much of the COVID-19-related pieces of legislation, and have branched out to some of the work that has sat on the House calendar for two months.

One of the bills on the Floor this week that is COVID-19-related is H.957, which would extend the deadline to test for lead in the drinking water of school buildings. It was the goal to get this testing done by the end of 2020, but it is unclear if school buildings will be open in August/September and testing must be done when the water systems are in use. There was a question regarding the need for an additional year to get the job done. The goal remains to finish the testing as quickly as possible, but the reality is that it may be impossible if schools remain closed in the fall. Given that the Legislature will not reconvene until January, it made sense to pass H.957 and allow this leeway just in case.

Another bill that may prove important in the future is S.243, which would establish an Emergency Service Provider Wellness Commission. One of the purposes of the Commission is to recommend steps necessary to enable the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to collect and confidentially report yearly to the Department of Health the number of deaths of persons previously employed as an emergency service provider in which the contributing cause of death was heart disease, substance misuse, or death by suicide.

Now more than ever, our emergency service providers, including firefighters, emergency and advanced emergency medical technicians, paramedics, constables, sheriffs, and probation, parole, or correctional facility officers are extremely important to the safety and well-being of our communities. They experience and deal with some of the most traumatic situations of life and death. It will be the goal of the Commission to determine the best ways to get emergency service providers the help they need and deserve to continue to do their good work.

Identifying the gaps and strengths in Vermont’s system of care for emergency service providers will be an important part of the Commission’s work. It will also be their task to recommend how peer support services and qualified clinician services can best be delivered regionally or statewide, especially in communities that are resource-challenged, remote, small, and/or rural. They will also “recommend policies, practices, training, legislation, rules, and services that will increase successful interventions and support for emergency service providers to improve health outcomes, job performance, and personal well-being and reduce health risks, violations of employment, and violence associated with the impact of untreated trauma, including whether to amend Vermont’s employment medical leave laws to assist volunteer emergency service providers in recovering from the effects of trauma experienced while on duty.”

We are extremely thankful for our emergency workers and grateful for the work they do at any time, but especially now in light of the pandemic, we need to make sure they are getting the help they need to remain physically and mentally healthy.

We worked on several other bills that were not COVID-19-related but important to the running of the state. Included in that was H.954, the Miscellaneous Tax Bill. It makes minor changes to tax law and passed unanimously.

We also passed S.255, an act relating to Captive Insurance. Captive insurance is an important industry that has been in existence in Vermont for almost 40 years. I learned about it as a freshman legislator 22 years ago when I sat on what was then the Commerce Committee. Legislation passed decades ago helped make Vermont the number one domicile for captive insurance in the United States.

Most people are not aware of Vermont’s status in this little-known industry. What is captive insurance, anyway? It is “a regulated form of self-insurance that is created, owned, and controlled by the insureds” according to the Vermont Captive Insurance Association’s website. An example of why a business might want to form a captive would be if they can’t find the level of insurance product from existing insurance companies. For instance, a high-end hotel that wants to be able to cover guest accidents that might not be covered by standard liability insurance.

Vermont is so good that it was named “Domicile of the Year” for the sixth time by the leading London-based trade publication, Captive Review. Because we are frequently rated best in the world, the industry brings in millions of dollars in premium taxes to State coffers. It’s for that reason that we update our captive legislation often and why S.255 is so important.

We worked on H.955, the Capital Bill, which makes “bricks and mortar” investments in state properties. Capital Bill projects are funded by the issuance of tax-free bonds and are limited to infrastructure projects. The money invested in these projects goes right back into our communities and will be a $60 million boost for our construction industry as we begin to restart the Vermont economy this summer.

This week I also moderated a Council of State Governments Eastern Regional Conference Agriculture and Rural Development meeting regarding the effects of COVID-19 on the agricultural economy. In recent weeks, I have written about many of the impacts we have experienced in Vermont but I was shocked by a statistic shared by one of our guest speakers, Dr. John Newton, who is the Chief Economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation. More than half (54%) of the food consumed in the United States is consumed outside of the home. Only 37% is purchased at a grocery store and 14% is other food consumed at home. While surprising, it helps explain why the loss of sales to restaurants and other food service businesses has had such a dramatic effect on our farm economy.