Green Mountain Care Board: Already in over its head

By Rob Roper 

“If we vote to pull the [request for a communications director], we’ll create a new controversy. And that new controversy could be, well, is this board independent or not from the Administration?”

– Green Mountain Care Board Member, Con Hogan.

It seemed like a simple thing: bringing on a professional communications person to assist the Green Mountain Care Board with public outreach. But, what was supposed to be a public relations boon turned quickly turned into PR nightmare. Less than a week after voting to fill the communications position, the GMC Board voted 4-1 to pull the request.

Beyond the embarrassment of the political firestorm, which saw the GMC board catching flack from the Right, the Left, and most importantly from the Administration, the episode and its fallout are revealing some deep flaws in the whole concept of the Board itself. Is it truly independent of the Administration? Is it even capable of pulling off the task with which it is charged?

Frustration and even anger on the part of the Board Members was palpable at their Tuesday afternoon meeting as they, one by one, blamed the media, the political process, the Shumlin Administration, and, in part, themselves for the fiasco.

Chairwoman Anya Rader Wallack explained, “People… have criticized our decision we made at the last meeting to seek out help in communicating with the public, and to gather input into our work. And I think that criticism is based in part on a misunderstanding of what it is we were looking for. I take some responsibility for that in that we put out an RFP that used language in our request for proposal that could be construed as “spin” or “propaganda” if somebody wanted to do that, or if they didn’t take the time to fully read the RFP.”

Member Con Hogan was blunt. “The media over the last few days has been full of crap. Words like “flacks” to describe the kind of person we’re looking for; that we’re creating a department of propaganda; that our sole purpose is to improve the personal images of the people on this board. That’s all been in the media. And, it caused an environment in where, as far as I’m concerned, the Administration completely overreacted.”

Hogan went on to express a further worry that, “If we vote to pull the RFP, we’ll create a new controversy. And that new controversy could be, well, is this board independent or not from the Administration?”

Indeed, Rader Wallack prefaced her remarks with the statement, “I don’t agree with those who have criticized us for doing this. But,… I am not – just to set the record straight — I am not making the recommendation I’m about to make, or the request that I’m about to make, because the governor or anybody else contacted me about these concerns.”

Not to sound too cynical, but that claim rings a little hollow, particularly after Con Hogan explained why he was going to vote to pull the board’s hiring request, “We have to coordinate closely with the Administration early on in our work, because they are working on things that we need in order to do our job… We have to have a relationship with the Administration to continue to get that work done.”

The Board is supposed to be “independent” and “apolitical”. But, back in August, when Rader Wallack was serving as Governor Shumlin’s Special Council on Healthcare and under consideration to chair the Green Mountain Care board, people wondered exactly how independent the board could be with her in charge. At the time, Rep. Vicki Strong (R-Albany), who served on the nomination committee, raised the red flag, “What is [her nomination] saying?… Already there is skepticism of these five people who are going to change healthcare for our state. What is this saying about our state? Is this just all politics? We need a credible board to have [Green Mountain Care] be believable.”

Perhaps of deeper concern was the Board’s expressions of not being up to completing its tasks without the help of a communications director – which they’re not getting.

Al Gobeille, the board member chosen for his business experience, said, “I felt compelled by the wording in Act 48 that it was almost an overwhelming task to do the public engagement task that is in the law, and I’m not sure how we can do it. If we vote to rescind the RFP, the need is still there.

Gobeille pointed to specific areas language that the Board will have to carry out, “One is that we’re supposed to ‘engage Vermonters in seeking ways to equitably distribute health services….’ And it goes on. But, I don’t know what that means, so I don’t know how we’re going to engage them. So, if we don’t have someone to engage them, and I don’t know what it means, we’re going to have a problem doing that.”

When Governor Peter Shumlin sold the idea of universal healthcare and the creation of a five person panel to run it, he acknowledged that everyone was right to be worried because government has “gotten it wrong every single time.” This time would be different, he assured us, because he was going to put “really smart people” in charge of the process.

These folks may be really smart, but today they looked like they were in over their heads both in terms of being able to handle the political realities of their situation and in terms of being up to the task before them. Ironically, they really could have used a communications consultant. Rader Wallack closed the meeting foregoing and without acknowledging the last item on the printed agenda: “Public Comment (15 minutes).”