Vermont Senator Matt Dunne stopped by the 13th Floor yesterday to chat about what's going on in the Green Mountain State, including healthcare issues, technology and Dunne's run for lieutenant governor this year. A second-term senator, Dunne was first elected to the state House at the age of 22. He also served for over two years as the national director of the Americorps VISTA volunteer service program.

As it turns out, Vermont's pretty small (I know---who knew??).  But it's experiencing many of the same issues as other states across the country. 

Chiefly, Vermonters are struggling to deal with exploding healthcare costs---
costs that are increasing statewide at a rate of a million dollars a day.

"That scares the hell out of me," says Dunne.

To see what the state is doing about it, and to find out Dunne's thoughts on technology and a very nifty program to get college students involved in public policy, read on after the jump.

After much debate, the state was able to pass a couple compromise healthcare reform bills at the end of May. The pair of bills set up what will be called the Catamount Health plan, a state-funded insurance program for the uninsured. The bills also will require employers to pay assessments if they do not offer health care coverage to their workers.

"I believe it was a small step, but a step that had to be taken," says Dunne, who favored a more comprehensive plan that would offer universal coverage.

Still, he says, the plan is a good move toward addressing some of the basic problems with healthcare in the state. "The biggest problem with the current healthcare system is that providers get rewarded for putting as many procedures into a 10-minute period as possible. And they get a bonus for fitting an expensive piece of equipment into that 10 minutes.

"We want to base healthcare on a system of what you do to get people well, not just how many procedures you perform."

Catamount Health is a beginning, he says, but it's not enough. "It does not create a system. It doesn't do enough to contain costs." The plan sets up a co-pay system, which the state will subsidize for those who can't afford it. "My concern with Catamount is that, since it's a subsidy of a premium of a private insurance product, there's nothing to keep the insurance companies from raising that premium. My fear is that we'll lose ground over a period of time and end up deeper and deeper in a hole."

TECHNOLOGY

Dunne acknowledges that he's been called "the Broadband senator" because of his unwavering push for universal statewide broadband coverage. But he says it's essential for the state, especially because Vermont is so rural.

"If we don't have universal broadband in Vermont, we will not only lose economic opportunity, but we'll be going down a dangerous road." If Vermont can't compete technologically, Dunne says, it will increasingly be viewed as just a resort community,

Dunne applauded the state's acheivement in putting broadband access in every public school---which is saying a lot in a state where many schools have fewer than 100 students.

POLICY RESEARCH SHOP

In an effort to engage college students and get them more involved and interested in public policy, Dunne in 1997 helped form something called the Vermont Legislative Research Shop at the University of Vermont.

It's a class for students to conduct research at the request of legislators. The analyses produced by the students are very high quality, and have been used to help draft legislation. Dunne says it's the most extensive program of its kind that he knows about.

"There are other places in other states where students can advocate for certain things, or do political research in a vacuum. But this is the only one I know about thatg has actually become part of the legislative enterprise."

Because the students know their work could lead directly to substantive legislation, Dunne says they are more engaged and interested.

It's a very cool program that seems to accomplish several goals: It provides legislators with useful, unbiased, real-world data. And it gets students involved in shaping public policy.