Fisher to lead health care advocacy for Vermont Legal Aid
MONTPELIER — Former state Rep. Mike Fisher returned to the Vermont Statehouse this month.
The Lincoln Democrat did not go to reclaim an Addison-4 House seat, but as Vermont Legal Aid’s chief health care advocate.
It’s a new job that will see Fisher lead VLA’s Office of the Health Care Advocate, established by the 1998 Legislature to help Vermonters with questions and problems accessing health care services and insurance, and to represent the health care interests of all Vermonters in Montpelier.
It’s a job that seems tailor-made for Fisher, a former seven-term Addison-4 House member who chaired the House Health Care Committee for three years and served six years as vice chairman of the House Human Services Committee.
Fisher was defeated two years ago in his re-election bid, but maintained a keen interest in health care policy as he continued his job as an outreach worker with the Addison County Parent-Child Center. He left that job last month when offered the VLA position.
“After 28 years at the PCC, I’m excited to start at Vermont Legal Aid,” Fisher said prior to Gov. Phil Scott’s inaugural address at the Statehouse on Jan. 5. “I look forward to being a strong, independent voice for Vermonters.”
“It is bittersweet,” he added of his career transition. “I am excited about my new job, but the (Parent-Child) Center has been a real home for me, and I can’t overestimate the heroic work that PCC workers do in partnership with families. It literally saves lives.”
The Office of the Health Care Advocate, or HCA, helps Vermont consumers with a broad range of problems and questions related to health care services and health insurance. The HCA acts as a voice and advocate for consumers in health care policy matters before the Vermont Legislature and governmental agencies that oversee insurance and health care programs. The office is a project of Vermont Legal Aid.
“Mike brings a deep understanding of Vermont’s health care laws, the legislative process, and the numerous challenges that many struggling Vermonters face on a daily basis,” said Eric Avildsen, executive director of Vermont Legal Aid. “We are especially pleased to have someone with Mike’s experience during this time of great uncertainty for many Vermonters who are worried about losing the insurance they finally were able to obtain.”
Fisher will be based in Legal Aid’s Burlington office, but he expects to spend a lot of time in the Statehouse this session networking with lawmakers on health care issues. He hopes his former colleagues also see him as a resource, as he was recently a significant player in the state’s health care reform efforts.
In his new role, he is keenly aware of how Vermonters feel about their health care options.
“We have this feedback from hundreds and hundreds of Vermonters who call with (insurance) access problems,” Fisher said. “We have a feedback group that policymakers can benefit from.”
Along with lawmakers and Vermonters in general, Fisher will also meet with employers and insurance companies, entities he said are yearning for “some predictability in their worlds” when it comes to the complex health insurance landscape.
He promised to keep an open ear and mind to state officials’ health care suggestions.
“We will be responsive to legislators’ questions about any proposal, whether it be universal access to primary care or expanding Dr. Dynasaur (health coverage for children),” Fisher said.
And all of the health care conversations, Fisher acknowledged, will have to take into account a chronically underfunded federal Medicaid program.
Fisher realizes that Vermont’s health care future will, to a great extent, by shaped by federal lawmakers in Washington, D.C. President-elect Donald Trump and Republican members of Congress have been strident in his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. It’s repeal or overhaul could affect significant health care reforms Vermont has already implemented, state officials have warned.
“We are all watching the conversation in Washington, D.C.,” Fisher said. “We are trying to evaluate and understand how any proposals might affect Vermonters.”
Sue Bloomer and Fisher both joined the PCC in 1988. Bloomer, now the center’s co-director, said Fisher through the years became a respected colleague and a close friend.
HELPED YOUNG PARENTS
“For me, it’s kind of like losing a brother,” she said of Fisher’s departure from the PCC.
That said, Bloomer is pleased to see Fisher use his talents in what for him is a new, yet very familiar, role: Working to expand Vermonters’ access to health care services. She noted Fisher knows his way around the Statehouse — and particularly the House Health Care Committee meeting room, where he previously presided over many a meeting.
“I believe this is the next step for him,” Bloomer said.
It was indeed a bittersweet bon voyage celebration for Fisher at the PCC last month. The celebration included the return of some of the young parents Fisher helped during his years with the organization. One of those parents gave Fisher a photo she had taken with Fisher and kept in a place of honor in her home. She gave the photo to Fisher as a token of her appreciation for his guidance.
“It was very, very touching,” Bloomer said.
Fisher became known as someone who would help young parents in any kind of difficulty, from accessing important social services to changing their tires.
“Our loss is Vermont Legal Aid’s gain,” said Donna Bailey, the PCC’s other co-director.
“He will forever be a part of our community.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].