Health exchange problems qualify as ‘something-burger,’ governor says

Gov. Peter Shumlin says Vermont’s new health insurance market and the troubles many Vermonters have run into when trying to access it are “something-burgers.”

What was a “nothing-burger,” he said, is the delay of the Web-based market’s payment function from Oct. 1 to Nov. 1.

“Let’s talk about nothing-burgers and something-burgers,” Shumlin said at a Thursday news conference in the Statehouse. “The website is a something-burger. The challenges that we’re having with the website obviously are something-burgers.”

The front-end pages of the online portal, called Vermont Health Connect, have sped up since its sluggish start Tuesday. By Thursday at 4 p.m., more than 25,000 Vermonters had visited the site, and more than 1,800 had registered an account, state officials said.

But some key support personnel for the market said they have been unable to log in.

Mary Eversole, director of the Vermont Insurance Agents Association, says the back-end part of the website that brokers use for enrolling Vermonters in health care plans is not working for many of her members.

“I think I have a mutiny on my hands. My brokers keep getting locked out of the system, and they can’t enroll people,” she said. “They are using paper applications. We have groups that need to be enrolled within 75 days, and that goes quickly. So, we are concerned.”

Mark Larson, commissioner of Vermont Health Access, who is overseeing the implementation of the market, told the legislative Health Oversight Committee on Thursday that his team has identified the problems and is working to solve them. In addition to the more-than 100 brokers assisting Vermonters, there are more than 200 so-called navigators who are providing in-person free assistance.

“Many navigators and brokers have had a difficult time logging into their account,” Larson said. “It’s a matter of connecting with each one of them to make sure they know how to get themselves into the system.”

The slow speed of the site has caused problems for many navigators, brokers and Vermonters trying to partially enroll in a health insurance plan. Larson said his team changed a setting in the software that sped up the loading of some Web pages.

“In terms of the load time, we know that the website is running slower than we expected it to,” Larson said. “As of yesterday afternoon, there was a marked improvement in speed on the front pages.”

On day one, Larson announced that the state had “successfully launched the website.” But Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, on Thursday begged to differ.

“I don’t think that this can be viewed as a success if someone can view all of the products but can’t pay for them.” Mullin said.

On Jan. 1, 2014, the state is mandating that the roughly 100,000 Vermonters buying insurance independently or through businesses with 50 or fewer full-time employees to do so through the exchange. Right now, Vermonters are unable to make purchases on the Vermont Health Connect website.

Aside from the absent payment mechanism, the state system is not fully connected to the computer systems of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont and MVP Health Care. Those are the two insurers offering a total of 18 plans — nine each — on the state market.

Larson did, however, emphasize to legislators that the state is connected to the federal data hub. When a Vermonter enters his or her personal details into Vermont Health Connect, they go to a U.S. government data hub that then transmits them to various federal databases. Larson said the hub is used to authenticate details such as citizenship and income level.

“I want to be very clear that Vermont Health Connect is connected to the federal data hub, and that connection is functional, and it is demonstrated by the fact that Vermonters are submitting applications that require authorization in real-time,” he said.

One of the main hurdles Vermont and many other states have bumped into is the set of tight timelines for building and implementing massive IT infrastructure that the federal government set forth in the Affordable Care Act. Both Larson and Shumlin stressed that point.

“The Affordable Care Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by the president. They chose the implementation dates. The governors didn’t,” Shumlin said. “I think it’s relevant that the date of Oct. 1 was chosen by the folks in Washington, and the governors were asked to implement it.

“We are doing that,” he continued. “But if you look at the timeline we were all asked to work under … we are obviously all struggling to have perfect websites by Oct. 1.”

Andrew Stein

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