The government shutdown did not deter Tuesday’s opening of the state’s new health insurance market, Vermont Health Connect.
What did present many Vermonters with difficulty was the snail’s pace of the online portal. Numerous Vermonters reported sluggish performance and a lack of functionality during the debut of the project that is expected to cost at least $170 million in federal tax money. A VTDigger reporter gave up trying to register for an account after three hours of on-and-off attempts.
Mark Larson, commissioner of Vermont Health Access, told reporters at a news conference in Winooski on Tuesday that the system’s performance is his primary concern.
“I’m frankly more worried about the speed of our website than I am about the funding of the Affordable Care Act going away,” he said.
Vermont Health Connect is Vermont’s response to the federal Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. While Washington stood at a budget standoff over this very health care law, state officials and consultants scrambled to get the site running smoothly.
The marketplace opened at 9 a.m., and at 4 p.m. the administration reported 8,500 people had visited the website. Of that number, 330 registered user accounts, officials said.
Vermont Health Connect staff posted on Facebook that the state was “experiencing some access issues because of high traffic.” But Larson told reporters the slowness of the site has nothing to do with the volume of users.
“It’s more about having all of our servers working together and calibrated together and working efficiently. It’s really a technological problem we’re working our way through,” he said. “I think the fact that we’re up today and the challenge that we’re facing … (that) the website is slow is frankly a long way from what the conversation was the past few days.”
Larson said Vermont Health Connect was tied together at the very end.
“All pieces came together last night for its final launch this morning,” he said.
However, the market is not yet fully functional.
The administration says Vermonters will be able to buy plans on Nov. 1, and the state is still working to exchange data with the two insurers whose products are being sold on the government-run market. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont and MVP Health Care are offering 18 plans to Vermonters at four main coverage levels — ranging from bronze, with low premiums and the least coverage, to platinum, with high premiums and the most coverage.
The state’s chief consultant on the project, CGI, has also missed more than half of its key deadlines in creating the exchange.
It is important that the state has its exchange up and fully running in a timely fashion. Vermont will require roughly 100,000 residents buying insurance independently or through businesses with 50 or fewer full-time employees to purchase plans on the market for 2014. The deadline for insurance payments is Dec. 21.
Darcie Johnston has close ties to the Republican Party and runs Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, which opposes many of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s health care policies. After the news conference, she was one of several people who said they could not access the Vermont Health Connect website.
“I have not been able to connect, and many people I have talked to have not been able to connect,” she said. “I would like someone to prove that it works and connects to the federal data hub and show us it’s real. … It doesn’t lead to any confidence in the system that they claim they’ve built. They say they’re on track, and all I can tell is we’re all really tied to the track.”
Other Vermonters voiced frustration.
“I’ve been trying since 9 a.m.! Why werent you ready for the traffic!?!? This is so frustrating,” Jared Buker posted on Vermont Health Connect’s Facebook page Tuesday evening.
“I’m ready. Is VermontHealthConnect.gov ready? The site seems to have crashed,” Sheryl Rapee-Adams posted on VTDigger’s Facebook page.
VTDigger asked for a demonstration of the key functions of the site, which, according to the administration, were working. After roughly 30 minutes of waiting, exchange spokesperson Emily Yahr said a demo would not be possible.
“They are doing work because of the slowness,” she said.
Also present at the news conference was Peter Sterling, director of the Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security. The state awarded his group funding to provide in-person assistance to Vermonters who need help navigating the exchange. He is known as a “navigator.”
Sterling is one of the key minds behind the state’s low-income health subsidy program, Catamount, and he doesn’t expect site hiccups in the beginning to influence enrollment in the long run.
“Even if the computer is moving a little slower … I don’t think it will impact consumers’ ability to get access to the health care coverage they need in a timely way,” he said.
Nick Carter is a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood and is overseeing a group of navigators. He said that while he thought his team would be able to sign Vermonters up for plans Tuesday, the first day of Vermont Health Connect was not a waste.
“We, as a navigator, were expecting and prepared to enroll people today, but, at the same time, we were able to provide Vermonters with very helpful information that moved them one step closer to obtaining quality health care,” Carter said.