Editor’s note: This commentary is by Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access.
Health care reform in Vermont is based upon two indisputable facts: Small businesses and families need help finding and affording good coverage, and the skyrocketing increases in health care expenses year after year could have a catastrophic impact on jobs and our economy. The status quo on health care is not acceptable.
On Oct. 1, Vermont will continue to lead in recognizing those challenges, taking another step with the launch of health care marketplace programs required under the federal Affordable Care Act. Teams of dedicated people are working in Vermont and across the nation to ensure the exchanges launch as scheduled and address the health care challenges most Americans realize are unacceptable. In Vermont, we have chosen to create a state-designed insurance marketplace, Vermont Health Connect, moving toward providing quality coverage, helping small businesses and Vermonters afford health insurance, and controlling the staggering cost increases. We are launching Oct. 1 as planned.
We know that across the nation, the federal health care changes are being used for political warfare by a faction of conservatives bent on moving backward rather than successfully implementing the Affordable Care Act and improving health care coverage for Americans.
Unfortunately, we have seen some of this in Vermont too. But contrary to the predictions of a small group of conservative critics who appear comfortable with the status quo in health care, as reflected in a recent op-ed by Republican Randy Brock, Vermonters will be able to start comparing health insurance plans and selecting options that are right for them through Vermont Health Connect beginning Oct. 1.
The Shumlin administration has embraced the challenge of implementation of Vermont Health Connect because, if successful, we knew that many Vermonters would find access to health insurance more convenient and affordable. We fully understood the risks and recognized the window of opportunity and planning was tight, but given the potential benefits to Vermonters, accepted that the work of implementation was worth the benefits.
We have always acknowledged that there would be need for improvements along the way, and there have been. For example, contractor CGI missed initial milestones. But to hold our contractors to their obligations, ensure that they solved problems and stayed on track for an Oct. 1 launch, we have moved quickly to repair problems as they are discovered. The proof is in the result. Vermont Health Connect will launch on schedule.
That said, many of the criticisms of the naysayers are based on a combination of information that is inaccurate, outdated, or both. For example, Vermont Health Connect is indeed reliably connected to the federal data hub, despite Brock’s assertions otherwise. In addition, VHC has exchanged information with our carriers MVP, BCBS and Delta Dental also despite insinuations that has not happened, and testing with our carriers is ongoing.
Other assertions that have been made are also inaccurate. For example, Brock asserts that the chosen software products will not work as intended, yet nearly all the core software supporting Vermont Health Connect are proven products used in the health insurance industry and have been tested for the implementation of Vermont Health Connect. And the products and services handled by our main contractor, CGI, go far beyond the pieces of the federal exchange CGI is providing. We are upgrading our obsolete benefits eligibility system to ensure that our health care administration technology works for all Vermonters.
Brock also criticizes the exchange by referencing other failed IT projects, under different administrations. Since the Shumlin administration took office, the oversight of technology projects has increased and the administration worked with the Legislature on changes to Vermont statute (3 VSA 2222 & 22 VSA 901) to enhance the technology oversight even further. In the case of the DMV project mentioned by Brock, the DMV, the state CIO and the governor all worked together and were successful in getting Vermont a refund of the money spent with the primary contractor in the prior administration.
I understand there are those who are skeptical about the state’s ability to implement Vermont Health Connect, but to declare that it doesn’t work before it even starts raises questions about the critic’s true motivations.
The governor has acknowledged all along that challenges will occur during the implementation of Vermont Health Connect, and we have assembled a team to respond rapidly to the feedback we receive in the coming weeks and months following Tuesday’s launch.
True success of Vermont Health Connect should be judged by whether Vermonters are provided the opportunity to compare plans, select a plan that works for them, secure financial help if they qualify, and have coverage effective Jan. 1. The stakes are high. Vermont cannot fall prey to the partisan game-playing that has Congress tied in knots and we cannot give in to those who may hope for Vermont’s failure on this critical front.