Free Online Tool Helps Vermonters Compare Options and Save Money
By Seán Sheehan, Director of Outreach and Education, Health Access Eligibility & Enrollment Unit
It’s no secret that health insurance can be expensive. Full-cost premiums are more than many farm families can afford. But not having health insurance can be expensive too. It only takes one slip on the ice, one broken arm, or one hospitalization to cost an uninsured family thousands of dollars. The dilemma is not new. What is new, however, are two components of the Affordable Care Act that have completely changed the math for farm families trying decide whether to buy health coverage.
1) Financial help is now based on Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) with no asset test.
Eligibility for state health programs used to consider property and other assets, so many farm families – even those with low cash flow – were excluded. The fact that eligibility now focuses solely on MAGI means that many more farm families qualify for free or low-cost health coverage.
2) For many Vermonters, it costs less to buy a health plan on Vermont Health Connect than to pay the federal fee for not having insurance. The typical uninsured Vermonter can buy a Bronze plan for about the same amount that they’d pay in fees on their federal taxes if they don’t have insurance. Of course, Bronze plans aren’t the best health plans – subscribers could find themselves with significant out-of-pocket costs – but they do come with free preventive care and, most importantly, they limit the amount you must pay if you get sick or have an accident. Protection against bankruptcy is just one of the benefits that uninsured people miss out on when they opt to stay uninsured and pay the federal fee.
Now is the perfect time to sign up for health insurance. Vermont Health Connect is currently in its Open Enrollment period, which continues through January 31, 2017. This is the time when new customers can sign up for coverage and current customers can change to a different plan for the coming year.
Customers who are overwhelmed by choice and unsure where to start can check out the 2017 Plan Comparison Tool, a simple interactive program for estimating available financial help and weighing health plan options. The tool allows customers to compare plans not just by monthly premiums and deductible amounts, but also by estimated total annual costs. Vermonters can try it out by clicking on “Decision Tools” at https://VermontHealthConnect.gov.
After taking a couple minutes to enter age, income, health status, and expected use of medical services for all family members, the free tool presents the 20+ qualified health plans in order of estimated total costs, lowest to highest. The user then has several options for how to sort and screen the results, or to dive into plan details and links to the insurance carrier websites.
“We want Vermonters to have the information they need to find the right health plan for their needs and budget,” said Steven Costantino, Commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access. “We have the Customer Support Center to help those who want to talk to someone on the phone. We have an Assister Program to help those who want to meet face-to-face with a trained professional in their community. And we have a robust online tool for those who want to understand financial help and possible out-of-pockets costs from the comfort of their own living room or local library.”
After the user answers a few short questions, the Plan Comparison Tool immediately displays two key pieces of information for each health plan:
* An estimate of average total annual cost: this single-dollar figure takes into account the monthly premium, any available financial help to lower costs, and an out-of-pocket estimate for someone with the same family size, ages, health status, and other characteristics as the user's household;
* Risk in the plan: the cost if the user’s health care usage in a year turns out to be very high and the chances of having such a year.
These two pieces of information address what customers care most about. With the Plan Comparison Tool, consumers can quickly see and sort essential information on all available plans within minutes—and they can drill down for much more extensive information if they wish.
The online tool was developed by the non-profit Consumers' Checkbook and has won the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's award for best plan choice tool.
This kind of resource is very important because "a consumer just can't figure out: is a plan with the $200 deductible and a $10,000 out-of-pocket limit better for me than a plan with a $2,000 deductible and $4,000 out-of-pocket limit—and how about differences in co-pays, co-insurance, etc.?” said Robert Krughoff, president of Consumers’ Checkbook. “People don't know how much various health services cost or their likelihood of needing different services – and even health insurance experts can be hard-pressed to figure out which plan is best without a helpful tool. Vermont Health Connect is a leader in making this help available.”
Vermont Health Connect’s 2017 Open Enrollment began November 1 and runs until January 31. New customers can sign up online, by phone, or in person with an Assister. Current customers are automatically being renewed into 2017 coverage; they will also be able to call 855-899-9600 or click on the Renewals link in their VermontHealthConnect.gov account to report changes for the 2017 coverage year.
By Ella Chapin, Vermont Farms & Forest Viability Program Director
This winter the Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program, a program of the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, celebrates 15 years supporting the growth and success of businesses that keep Vermont’s working landscape in production. Since its creation, the Viability Program has provided business planning and technical assistance to over 500 farm, food, and forestry sector enterprises. Due to its strong track record, the program received two federal awards to expand the reach of these vital services – $100,000 from USDA Rural Development and $164,000 from the Northern Border Regional Commission – which will result in business growth and job creation in the agricultural and forestry sectors across the state.
Since the Viability Program began, twenty percent of eligible farms in Vermont have participated. A robust and interconnected network of organizations and consultants provide a business advisor, or in some cases a team of advisors, to meet over 1-2 years with enrolled business owners, including the Center for an Agricultural Economy, DairyVision VT, Intervale Center, Land for Good, Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, University of Vermont Extension, Vermont Agricultural Development Program, and Vermont Woodlands Association. On the Viability website, a map of all participants shows the breadth of the program’s influence, and a video featuring four farms – Donegan Family Dairy, Laughing Child Farm, Snug Valley Farm and Stony Pond Farm – highlights the value of the program to business owners: https://vimeo.com/189827461.
“We now know what it costs to grow an animal, produce an animal and get it to market. I think we would still be floundering and guessing if we hadn’t done the Farm Viability Program,” says Ben Nottermann, who raises beef and pork with his parents at Snug Valley Farm in East Hardwick. Emily Donegan, who milks 30 organic cows with her husband at Donegan Family Dairy, a nine-year-old business in Charlotte, believes “the best part of the program was to have a time and a place to flesh out ideas and have the support to do that.”
The Viability Program can be designed to meet any business’ needs, including businesses of any scale or production type. Farms that have used the program to expand and grow operations or plan for ownership transitions include fruit and vegetable growers like Jericho Settlers Farm, Flack Family Farm, Champlain Orchards and Harlow Farm, dairy farms including Rainville Dairy in Highgate and Centerview Farm in Enosburg, and organic dairies and on-farm dairy processors including Elysian Fields, Kimball Brook Farm, Jasper Hill Farm, Bonnieview Farm and Orb Weaver Farm.
Year after year, business owners report significant increases in their management skills as a direct result from working with their Viability business advisor. These include financial analysis and bookkeeping skills, greater abilities to plan for business investments, improved success in accessing capital, and strategic planning. For example, 66% of 2015 participants report being highly skilled in strategic planning after program completion, up from 6% before the program.
The services offered by the Viability Program have had tremendous impact on Vermont’s economy: Viability participants report an average increase in gross income of 15% and an average increase of net income of 35% in the year following the completion of their business plan. While all enrollees receive at least one year of business planning services, about 53% go on to receive a second year of services; those who do report an average increase in gross income of 30%.
“The Viability Program is a model looked to from around the country for how to provide assistance to the businesses that support the landscape, and we’re lucky to have it here in Vermont,” says Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross. In 2008 and 2013, the Viability Program hosted the National Farm Viability Conference in Middlebury, Vermont, each time bringing together over 200 professionals who work to improve the viability of farm and food businesses across the US. A third conference is planned for May 2017 in Albany, New York.
The Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program provides business planning, technical assistance, and ownership transfer planning to farm, food, forestry, and forest products businesses. For more information please visit www.vhcb.org/viability.
By Cheryl Herrick, UVM
On Monday, November 28th, the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture celebrated the launch of a new research project to assess the feasibility of using wool from Vermont sheep as an insulation material, and for other building and household products. The launch event was hosted by collaborator Open View Farm located in New Haven, Vermont and home to a flock of Tunis Dorset ewes. This exploration of a value-added product hopes to provide sheep farmers with new sources of revenue, and to add to the availability of environmentally friendly products for the building trade. The project has been made possible by a Value-Added Producer Grant from USDA Rural Development and support from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
From 2007 to 2012 the number of sheep farms in Vermont increased 27%, and the number of sheep increased by 35%. However, for a variety of reasons, many sheep farmers have struggled to turn a profit. At the same time, growing interest in natural non-toxic materials as insulation for buildings could provide a market for raw wool. Insulation made from wool is already produced in Europe and in locations in the western United States.
“The plan is to identify possible wins all around – for consumers interested in using a locally produced item to make their houses more comfortable and energy-efficient, for environmentally conscious builders, and, especially, for sheep farmers in Vermont and the region. This could be an answer to the wool collected from Vermont’s sheep which is currently lacking such a value-added market channel,” says Suzy Hodgson of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
Kimberly Hagen, grazing specialist at the Center for Sustainable Agriculture, says that shearing sheep regularly is part of maintaining a healthy flock but much of the wool collected does not have a ready market. This additional revenue stream for sheep farmers could provide a more viable business for them.
“Anytime the Agency of Agriculture can help farmers find a market for a low-value product, it’s a good day,” said Alex DePillis of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. “In this case, the minimally processed wool would become insulation that keeps Vermonters warm in their homes. We look forward to working collaboratively with farmers, builders, and organizations that serve the building industry, such as Efficiency Vermont and the Vermont Technical College, to create strategies for getting wool-based insulation to market.”
The research project team includes Kimberly Hagen and Suzy Hodgson, UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture; Anna Freund of Open View Farm; Alex DePillis, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets; Deb and Ed Bratton, Vermont Fiber Mill; David Ritchie, Green Mountain Spinnery; Alex Wilson, Building Green; Andrea Murray, Vermont Integrated Architecture; Ben Graham, New Frameworks; and Dave Martin, Settlement Farm.
The work will culminate in a feasibility report, which will be made available to the public on the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture site at http://www.uvm.edu/~susagctr/?Page=whatwedo/projectsresearch/wool_project.html.
For more information about this wool research project, please contact Kimberly Hagen, 802-522-6729, firstname.lastname@example.org
About UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture
Established in 1994, the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture provides timely information to Vermont communities and the UVM campus. Center staff conduct innovative research, support the development of promising practices, cultivates partnership, and inform policy to advance sustainable food and farming systems
University of Vermont Extension, and U.S. Department of Agriculture, cooperating, offer education and employment to everyone without regard to race, color, national origin, gender, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, and marital or familial status. This institution is an equal opportunity provider.
Christine McGowan named director of Forest Products Value Chain Investment Program at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund
By Rachel Carter, Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund
The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund has launched a new initiative to assist the forest products industry in creating and retaining quality jobs and opening additional markets for locally produced wood products. A collaboration between the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, the Northern Forest Center, and the Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Board, the new Forest Products Value Chain Investment Program will include business assistance to wood products manufacturers, market research and development, the creation of an industry-wide network, and a comprehensive communications strategy designed to raise the profile of the industry in Vermont and the region.
Christine McGowan of Stowe has been hired as program director. She will be responsible for building a forest industry network to expand the market of Vermont forest products, working with industry members to research and develop new products, and implementing a communications strategy that raises the profile of the people and products behind the Vermont forest products industry.
McGowan previously served in strategic communication roles for the National Wildlife Refuge Association, The Nature Conservancy, and the National Wildlife Federation, where her efforts around the 2010 Gulf oil spill disaster and the 2013 Green Inaugural Ball helped elevate the issue of climate change’s effect on wildlife through the media. She grew up working in her family’s business, Dorsey Millwork, Inc., a distributor for Andersen Corporation, a major manufacturer of wood window and door products. McGowan and her husband Dan own Lamoille Valley Painters in Stowe.
The Forest Products Value Chain Investment Program grew out of a year-long industry analysis funded and led by the Working Lands Enterprise Board Forestry Committee who worked with Yellow Wood Associates to identify how to strengthen the industry, access new markets outside the state, and develop new products that could be produced in a more collaborative manner among industry members.
The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund’s work with the forest products industry dates back to the early 2000s with its Cornerstone Initiative which focused on sourcing more local wood in state and college campus buildings. VSJF also collaborated with the Vermont Wood Manufacturing Association to educate architects and design firms on how to source local wood through the use of ‘green specs’ in construction projects around the state.
“We are pleased to be able to bring our network development, business assistance and communications expertise to this next phase of forest products industry development – as we’ve demonstrated most recently through the Farm to Plate Network’s implementation of Vermont’s food system plan. The goal of the new Forest Products Value Chain Investment Program is to enhance the economic competitiveness of the forest products industry in the region by exploring ways to access new markets outside the state, developing new products that could be produced using Vermont wood and encouraging innovation and facilitating collaboration among industry members,” says Ellen Kahler, executive director at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.
The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) is a non-profit organization committed to nurturing the sustainable development of Vermont’s economy. VSJF provides business assistance, network development, research and financing in agriculture and food system, forest product, waste management, renewable energy, and environmental technology sectors. Located in Montpelier, Vermont, VSJF was created by the Vermont Legislature in 1995 to partner with state government, private sector businesses, and non-profits to build a thriving economic, social, and ecological future for Vermont. Learn more at www.vsjf.org and www.facebook.com/VermontSustainableJobsFund.
The Office of the State Treasurer is accepting public comments on clean water revenue source options and other topics regarding ACT 64 from November 16th through December 1st. Please submit your comments by completing this fillable comment form and email to Treasurers.Office@Vermont.gov by December 1st.
For up to date information, please visit the Department of Environmental Conservation's webpage: http://dec.vermont.gov/watershed/cwi/cwf/future
An excerpt of Act 64 is linked here concerning the Legislative Report: http://dec.vermont.gov/sites/dec/files/wsm/erp/docs/Act_64_excerpt.pdf