The clock is ticking down to the Jan. 1 expiration date for the health insurance plans of roughly 75,000 Vermonters, all of whom are required to go on the state’s new health care exchange.
The problem is, Vermont Health Connect, the state’s exchange website, isn’t working up to par. The site went live on Oct. 1 and has been fraught with technical problems. Navigators, business owners and individuals who have attempted to sign up for the program have been unable to get past frozen screens, error pages and the like.
At a press conference on Thursday, Gov. Peter Shumlin said his team is working every day with CGI, the state’s web development contractor, to get the website working up to par, but he was unwilling to discuss contingency plans.
Meanwhile, there is no end in sight for the technical problems. Shumlin refused to say whether his administration would impose financial penalties on CGI for the delays.
“The website is working better today than it was yesterday; it will work better next week than it does this week; and if it doesn’t, this CEO and the rest will be fried as I hold their feet to the fire,” Shumlin said. “We’re going to get this done over time.”
CGI has missed several deadlines, and the company recently shuffled around its leadership team in Vermont. While Shumlin can impose millions of dollars in penalties on CGI for falling behind schedule, that action alone would not alleviate the risk of Vermonters experiencing a gap in their health insurance coverage.
The administration expects 100,000 Vermonters to obtain health coverage on the market, but right now the market’s payment mechanism is not functional, and the state system is not fully connected to the websites of two health insurers selling plans.
It’s possible that Vermonters could experience a lapse in coverage if the website isn’t up and running soon and Shumlin administration does not take extraordinary action. That is because the state is requiring all Vermonters buying insurance independently or through businesses with 50 or fewer employees to obtain health insurance on Vermont Health Connect starting in 2014.
Republican legislative leaders stepped out in front of the issue on Wednesday. Minority leaders Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton, and Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, called on the Shumlin administration to use a contingency mechanism built into one of the state’s recent health care reform bills, Act 171, or call on the Legislature to find a fix.
Act 171 gives Shumlin’s commissioner of financial regulation the power to “extend coverage” of an existing plan.
“We feel that Vermont is now at a point where far too many people are at risk of not having health insurance or prescription coverage when the New Year begins,” Turner and Benning said in a joint statement. “It is critical that the system be fully operational before Vermonters are mandated to purchase their health insurance through it. Therefore, if the online exchange is not fully functional by Dec. 1, 2013, we will call upon the administration, the lieutenant governor, the speaker and the senate pro tem to put the interests of Vermonters first by deploying the safety provision in the current law or calling for a special session of the Legislature to develop an alternative plan.”
Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, chairs the House Health Care Committee, which crafted Act 171. He says it’s premature to talk about using that contingency provision of the bill, but he also said it was put there for a reason. If the state continues to experience IT challenges, ensuring that Vermonters don’t lose coverage must be priority number one, he said.
“To minimize any lapse in coverage, absolutely everything will need to be on the table to maneuver through this transition,” he said.
The website is progressing, but deadlines appear to be shifting backward. The administration said a month ago that the payment mechanism for the site would be ready Nov. 1. Shumlin famously called the IT delay a “nothing burger.” Now, the administration says it might not be ready by next Friday, citing a desire to get this crucial piece of IT infrastructure right before going live.
Shumlin on Thursday said that he would do everything within his power to ensure that Vermonters would not experience a gap in coverage, but he did not talk specifics.
“I can assure you that we’re not going to let 100,000 Vermonters be without insurance on Jan. 1,” he said.
Cities and Towns
The lion’s share of Vermont municipalities and their employees must buy insurance on Vermont Health Connect.
Last week, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns completed a survey of more than 170 municipalities.
Only about half of those municipalities have been able to create a username and password on the site. Of those 70 municipalities that were able to create an account, only about 35 towns and cities could actually add information to the account after it was created. Only about 17 towns and cities were able to actually submit employee rosters to the state system to insure their employees.
Steve Jeffrey, director of the league, said that municipalities are frustrated with the process, but the administration is doing its best.
“I think they are trying as hard as they can,” Jeffrey said of the administration. “I think that every day gets another door opened to get further through the process. I have yet to have a day where that open door has led many people to the finish line. It’s getting better, whether it gets better fast enough or not is the big question.”
Jeffrey said that the market has been a major time consumer for municipalities.
“There’s a lot of stuff that’s supposed to be getting done in municipalities that isn’t getting done because they are spending time doing this stuff,” he said.
While the health insurance market is not fully operational, the administration says it is improving.
Last week, officials said only 800 Vermonters had selected a plan. By Thursday, that number had grown by roughly 75 percent to 1,405.
As of Wednesday, 7,900 Vermonters had created a user name and password for the market and 86,000 people had visited the site.
The administration says that the speed of the site has improved by 311 percent and is now on par with that of many other websites.
Sunday, the administration said the state site only connected to the federal data hub 70 percent of the time. When a Vermonter inputs information into Vermont Health Connect, it is supposed to transmit information to this federal hub. The hub then relays personal information to a range of federal agencies and departments. Officials say Vermont Health Connect now connects to the hub 100 percent of the time.
The administration also claims that the number of errors is decreasing.
“Vermonters continue to show interest in their health care options and sign up for coverage through the website,” Shumlin said. “Ensuring we identify continuing issues and implement fixes quickly is my top priority. We’re not yet where we need to be, but we’re making good progress.”