Some sign up, others struggle to gain access as health care exchange opens

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.

Postings on the Facebook page of Vermont Health Connect on Tuesday.

Postings on the Facebook page of Vermont Health Connect on Tuesday.

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.

Commissioner of Vermont Health Access Mark Larson (center) addressed reporters questions about Vermont Health Connect in Winooski on Tuesday. At left is Peter Sterling of the Campaign for Vermont Health Care Security and at right is Lawrence Miller, Secretary of Commerce and Community Development. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

Commissioner of Vermont Health Access Mark Larson, center, addressed reporters questions about Vermont Health Connect in Winooski on Tuesday. At left is Peter Sterling of the Campaign for Vermont Health Care Security and at right is Lawrence Miller, secretary of Commerce and Community Development. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewcstein

Comments

  1. Matt Fisken :

    How will this new website make Vermonters healthier? I don’t get it.

  2. Henault Judith :

    Instead of blathering on about all the problems with health care, how about providing information that is useful to people who want to get the insurance. Dandy randy’s politics do not help.

  3. Jeremy Stiles :

    “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.”

    This is a very small number of website hits to see any performance degradation. It make me think that no stress test or scaling tests were done prior to making this live. Most websites go through a process to make sure they can handle the load and properly scale to meet system demands. 8,500 connections in a day is a very small load to handle.

    • Kathy Callaghan :

      Jeremy, you raise a good point and I think you are right. Mark Larson says that “all pieces came together last night for the final launch this morning”. That doesn’t sound like stress testing or scaling tests were done.

  4. David Dempsey :

    If the servers were the problem, why did the Health Care Connect staff tell people on facebook that the problem was because of high volume of users. The commissoner seem to know that high volume had nothing to do with the problem. Did the staff lie, or did the commissioner fail to tell the staff about the servers. What difference does it make what the cause of the problem is. Most people understand that there are bound to be problems. But the public should be given accurate information about the problem. If they aren’t sure of the cause, they should tell people that. It makes me wonder what other misinformation are we getting from the commissioner about the status of the Health Exchange progress.

  5. Bob Orleck :

    quote from article: “A VTDigger reporter gave up trying to register for an account after three hours of on-and-off attempts.”

    If a vtdigger reporter has such problems then this surely bodes poorly for less savvy or connected Vermonters. Remember when the Shumlin gang told about broadband being in reach of all but about 200 homes? http://vtdigger.org/2013/08/24/state-regulators-say-universal-broadband-is-within-reach/ Being such, the Emperior can now tell us that since 330 out of 8500 have been able to establish an account that this is proof that their on-line “dog and pony show” is more than that and if anyone cannot get connected, it must be their own fault and that includes this vtdigger reporter.

    By the way, what does it mean to have established an “account”? Does that mean these folks have been able to buy insurance? Not at all, but they still will have to pay big time. What their account entitles them to do is to participate in this really great and cool on-line virtual “medical game” that was funded by the Federal Government (for a little while) where all who can connect (that is where the name came from-Vermont Health Connect) will get “quality healthcare”, not from physicians, but from this neat computer artificial intelligence program where computers will function as your doctors, diagnose you through your fine Shumlin guaranteed internet connection and they even have a plan to get your meds to you. Wow! 100% coverage, no problem, right now!

    The system will even be available to provide you a 6 month terminal diagnosis if you want to do yourself in pursuant to Vermont’s Act 39 (physician assisted suicide law) and provide you with an on-line voucher to use at your local pharmacy or if you are unable or unwilling to go to the real pharmacy they will send the lethal drugs to you by email from their virtual pharmacy operating right out of Emperior Shumlin’s Montpelier office if you can believe that.

    This is the new face of health care and Vermont is the first in the nation to provide it. What a great place to live and raise a family.

    • Fred Woogmaster :

      “What a great place to live and raise a family.”

      Absolutely; imperfections notwithstanding!

  6. Craig Powers :

    What a horror show! This system is a complete disaster. Here we are in day three and I still cannot set up an account. Technical glitch.

    And…I was just transferred via telephone to a Level 2 customer support person…it just rings and rings and rings and rings and rings….no one is there!

    Mark Larson should be fired.

  7. MJ FARMER :

    Where do the subsidies come from? From the tax return? tax year 2014 OR tax year 2015? Please help me understand how and where I will get my subsidy. Thank you.

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