Candidates for governor weigh in on elder issues
MIDDLEBURY — Three of the five announced candidates for governor faced scrutiny on Friday from what would be their largest growing constituency — senior citizens, who want to know how the state’s next top executive will respond to their economic, transportation, housing and health care needs.
The questioning took place at a forum on elder issues held at the EastView at Middlebury retirement community. The event — sponsored by EastView, the Community of Vermont Elders, and the Addison County Retired Teachers Association — was designed to shed more light on the candidates’ views on matters affecting Vermont’s growing population of senior citizens, including affordable housing, health care, taxation, transportation and community-based long-term care services.
Participating in the forum were candidates Matt Dunne, a Hartland Democrat, former Vermont lawmaker and current Google executive; Bruce Lisman, a Shelburne Republican and former Wall Street executive; and Waterbury Democrat Sue Minter, a former state lawmaker who most recently served as secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
The two other announced candidates for governor — Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and House Speaker Shap Smith — could not attend due to a scheduling conflict and family medical issue, respectively.
Dunne, 45, is a strong advocate of universal health care, a system that he believes could substantially reduce medical expenses for seniors and other segments of the population.
“Our (health care) reimbursement system is broken,” Dunne told the audience gathered at EastView. “The way we pay for health care in Vermont and the country is dumb.”
Health care revenues are currently based on hospital stays and expensive medical procedures, said Dunne, who added compensation should be predicated on the health of the population. In other words, the system should incentivize healthy living and preventative care, according to Dunne.
He believes health care dollars should be released to local health care communities, which could best prioritize the use of that money.
Dunne was director of AmeriCorps VISTA during the Clinton administration, during which he mobilized youth into community service efforts throughout the country. He said on Friday that he would like to take that same approach with seniors, in terms of channeling their experience into programs to advance the state’s priorities — such as getting more Vermont high school graduates to attend college. Dunne suggested seniors could help accomplish that goal by serving as mentors, or by doing something even more basic: calling high school juniors the night before a PSAT test to remind them to take that important exam that places students on colleges’ radar screens.
Dunne also wants to give seniors more access to training in how to use computers, cell phones and other technology that would make them greater players in today’s economy. Dunne, an advocate of paid sick leave, believes that employers might also benefit from some training to recognize how to best use their staff talent.
“For us to be successful going forward, we will need an economy that works for all Vermonters and all of Vermont,” Dunne said.
Audience members at Friday’s forum noted the transportation difficulties seniors face, particularly when and if they lose their driver’s licenses. Dunne proposed a couple of ways to remedy that problem, including clustering senior housing near village services and introducing a nonprofit incarnation of the Uber taxi service for folks in rural areas who aren’t on a public transportation route.
Dunne acknowledged the constant need for improving state and local roads and bridges. He suggested increasing use of revenue bonds — rather than depending on state budgets — to underwrite the costs of such projects so that the work could be done more quickly and efficiently.
Lisman joked that at age 68, he could just as well have been in the audience of mostly seniors who showed up at the forum, rather than on the stage as one of the candidates. But he stressed that a lot of Americans — including investor Warren Buffet — are doing some of their best work during their golden years.
“Age has no boundary,” Lisman said. “It is intellectual curiosity, energy and capacity to engage that shape our world.”
That said, Lisman acknowledged that seniors tend to require more services as part of the aging process, and he believes state government will have to become more creative in finding resources to fund those services. State budget officers are forecasting a fiscal year 2017 budget gap of around $100 million.
“Our government has become calcified,” he said. “We’ve gotten used to a level of incompetence. The truth is, (state government) doesn’t operate well and it has broken the public-private partnership of expectations.”
Lisman said seniors should be recruited — as mentors, entrepreneurs and volunteers — to help improve state government.
“As governor, my main purpose is re-casting state government, breaking the calcification of it and changing the nature of it in renewing our economy,” he said.
“I need you to join up,” he said, looking out into the audience of around 60 mostly seniors.
State revenues have become too unpredictable and have amounted to a 2-percent annual increase in recent years, while state spending has increased at a 5-percent clip, according to Lisman.
“We need to get control of that,” he said.
If elected governor, Lisman vowed to advocate for property tax reform, home weatherization assistance, phasing out the state tax on Social Security during the next five to 10 years, reducing inheritance taxes, and implementing “remote medicine” technology as a means of helping home-bound patients in rural settings. Lisman also pointed out the advantages of creating more opportunities for seniors to live in Vermont’s villages and cities, thereby giving them more convenient access to public transportation, shopping and health care.
Lisman said he supports efforts to provide home-based care to seniors and others who need it, as opposed to the more costly alternative of nursing home residency. He lamented the lagging Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates that are making it increasingly difficult for home health agencies to provide care in home settings.
But the best prescription for health care reforms — and most of the state’s other ills — comes down to building a stronger economy with more dependable revenue streams and a state budget with better priorities, according to Lisman.
“(The state budget) was not built for you; it was built for the convenience of the politicians,” he said. “The outcome is that you’re screwed.”
If Vermont is to retain and attract the next generations of workers, it will have to do more to develop affordable housing and will have to reinvest in its current housing stock, according to Lisman.
Minter, 54, called this “a pivotal time in our state and in our country, as we are slowly growing out of the great recession.” But that economic growth has failed to touch some regions of the state, at the same time poverty has been making some consistent gains.
“We now have 20,000 children in poverty in Vermont today, and we know that 5 percent of our seniors are food-insecure,” Minter said. “Overriding all of this is the aging demographic; fewer young people, an aging population.”
If elected, Minter said she’d like to make opportunities out of the state’s challenges.
“I’m passionate about building strong communities, and know that communities are central to the discussion we are having here today about the future of our state and our senior population,” Minter said.
She pointed to her hometown of Waterbury as an example of a community that has made great strides since it was devastated four years ago by Tropical Storm Irene. One of those post-Irene accomplishments was the construction of a senior housing center that includes housing and a meal site for elders. A bus service takes seniors to the center for meals and activities, and local school children walk to the facility and interact with residents.
Other Vermont communities should explore similar opportunities for inter-generational facilities, Minter said. And those opportunities could soon become more prevalent as smaller Vermont communities decide whether to close their schools amid declining enrollment, according to Minter.
As rail line is improved along the state’s western corridor (through Middlebury), Minter said there will be more opportunities to build affordable housing along that transportation infrastructure.
The former transportation secretary acknowledged the mounting financial pressures for seniors on fixed incomes. Minter believes Act 46 — a new law that is pushing school districts to consolidate their governance and do more resource sharing — could do a lot to stabilize education taxes.
“We are having a very challenging discussion right now about how do we reconfigure our schools to fund greater savings and efficiencies?” Minter said. “Those sorts of efficiencies, I believe, we can find in state government.”
Like Dunne, Minter is intrigued about the potential for an Uber-like service in rural Vermont. And she noted a Middlebury College graduate, Matt George, is working on a program called “Bridj,” which employs an app and a jitney bus system to deliver rides that cost slightly more than public transportation, but far less than a taxi.
“Change is here,” Minter said, “and we need to use it to our advantage.”
Minter also advocated for providing retraining opportunities for older Vermonters who aren’t ready to retire. She suggested the state’s technical centers could play a role in that training. She suggested that the state’s more veteran workers — such as at VTrans — take an active role in mentoring the next generation of employees.
“Succession planning,” Minter said. “It’s a huge problem our state is facing.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
VERMONT GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE Matt Dunne addresses a large crowd during a candidates forum at EastView in Middlebury last Friday morning. Three of the five candidates for governor were on hand for the debate.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell