A haggard Gov. Peter Shumlin on Thursday announced contingency plans, pushed back deadlines and apologized for delays and technical glitches associated with Vermont’s new health insurance market.
On Jan. 1, Vermont Health Connect was set to become the sole health insurance marketplace for roughly 100,000 Vermonters buying insurance independently or through businesses with 50 or fewer employees. But after the Web-based market got off to a rocky start and the payment mechanism failed a performance test Wednesday, Shumlin said it was time to give Vermonters the certainty that they would not experience a lapse in health care coverage due the state’s technical hurdles.
“I’ve got to be the one who takes responsibility for where we are, and charts a predictable course that doesn’t disrupt business and doesn’t disrupt individual Vermonters, who desperately need health insurance,” Shumlin said. “I apologize for the challenges we’ve been having.”
Under the governor’s back-up plan, small businesses can keep their current health insurance plans until March 31, which is the end of the federal open enrollment period for new plans. The health care reform bill Act 171 gives Shumlin’s commissioner of financial regulation the power to “extend coverage” of an existing plan, and Republican legislative leaders called on Shumlin to exercise that power last week.
“We’re very pleased with the governor’s announcement,” said Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton, the House minority leader. “On behalf of Vermonters we thank the governor for realizing there’s a lot more work to be done, and the safety net we worked hard on throughout the legislative process is going to be utilized, which will benefit Vermonters.”
Shumlin said small businesses could also buy one of the 18 plans directly from the two insurers selling on the market: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont and MVP Health Care. This is a measure Republicans and some business groups, such as the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, have fought for years to put into law.
“To see the governor essentially legislating from the administration is interesting,” Turner said. “It’s something we’re happy about and fully support going forward. We will fight for Vermonters’ right to buy outside the exchange.”
Shumlin said Vermonters earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, who are eligible for Medicaid, would be enrolled automatically in Medicaid unless they opt out.
Vermonters buying insurance independently have the option to extend their health insurance plans until March 31.
Shumlin said his team aims to enroll lower income working Vermonters, who are currently enrolled in the state-subsidized Catamount and VHAP programs, on new plans by Jan. 1. Those programs are set to end on Jan. 1, but Shumlin said the state would extend those programs until March 31 if his administration struggled to enroll these Vermonters in new plans.
Thousands of Vermonters enrolled in Catamount and VHAP will be eligible for Medicaid subsidies, but those earning between 138 percent and 300 percent of the federal poverty level must buy new plans. These Vermonters will be eligible for federal and state subsidies.
According to the administration, Vermonters who have enrolled in new plans on the market or who plan to enroll in new plans will be able to if they successfully get through the paper application process or the beleaguered website.
Shumlin did not say when the Vermont Health Connect site would be fully functional, but he said March 31 gave the state and its contractors more than enough time to get the market up and running.
Information technology giant CGI is building the federal insurance market as well as Vermont’s. It has fallen behind on many key deadlines built into the $84 million contract. Of that amount, the administration says the state has paid $18 million to CGI, and it reserves the right to penalize the vendor for failing to meet some of the contract’s conditions.
“The folks that we’re working with, the vendors we’ve engaged, have not delivered on the product that we were promised,” Shumlin said. “That makes me miserable, and I’m going to make sure that makes them miserable until we get it right.”
Shumlin’s top health care staff, Lt. Gov Phil Scott, Sen. President Pro Tem John Campbell and other legislative and state leaders stood by the governor as he unveiled the state’s next move.
Blue Cross CEO Don George and MVP Vice President Bill Little were also in attendance.
“We have heard the frustration that comes along with this change for Vermonters, and we have also heard their dissatisfaction,” George said. “All along, I have very much appreciated the state’s firm commitment and strong will to complete successfully what is really an enormously complex and huge undertaking with very short federal timelines that were afforded to it. And I really see today’s options that are being offered as a furtherance of that strong commitment.
“I think the options today are at the optimal time and are the optimal combination of choices to respond to Vermonters concerns that have been raised,” he said.