Shumlin keeps health care exchange contingency plan under wraps

Gov. Peter Shumlin and Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson field questions about the state's new health care exchange Thursday in Montpelier. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

Gov. Peter Shumlin and Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson field questions about the state’s new health care exchange Thursday in Montpelier. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

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.”

Andrew Stein

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  • It is just my 2 cents worth, however in terms of putting Vermont Health Connect funding into perspective, it comes to mind about how, …

    $175 Million in federal taxpayer funds for Vermont Health Connect divided by 100,000 VT households or individuals equals $1750. per household or individual.

    Although $175 Million certainly sounds like a humongous amount of money to be spending on Vermont Health Connect, it is quite possible that spending $1750.00 per household or individual might not; particularly when factoring in both the timeframe this is being attempted as well as the extent of what is being created and set up.

    That said, if these were state general funds dollars at play, one can bet this would have been done very differently and at a much lower cost, including not wasting lots of money on what appears in some instances to be questionable contracts as well as activities and so on.

    • P.S.

      Not to even mention about how much actual healthcare provision could have been leveraged using these very same dollars instead.

  • Dave Bellini

    President Obama repeatedly promised that Americans could keep their current health plan. This is not true in Vermont.
    There’s no way to know if Vermonters will be able to get coverage through the exchange by January 1, 2014. This administration was critical of all the double-talk from Vermont Yankee and rightly so. Today the administration sounds very much like Entergy Louisiana. They say one thing, then later claim they really meant something else.
    I don’t see any reason to cram 100,000 people into an ever shrinking window of time to sign up. Pushing this off 6 – 12 months might not be such a bad idea. The Governor doesn’t want to lose face but that shouldn’t be the single most important factor.

    • Jon Corrigan

      Can it be delayed by 6 -12 months given the fact insurance companies are canceling policies? What would happen to those people?

      • Karen McCauliffe


        I am certain that BCBS and MVP can come up with plans for Vermonters outside of the exchange. Insurance companies have plans outside of the exchange in ALL the other states.

        Vermont is the only state that is forcing anyone into the exchange if they want to purchase health insurance.

        Governor Shumlin needs to be considering the legal ramifications of this if individuals, town employees and businesses under 50 employees are uninsured on Jan 1, 2014. The legal ramifications could be significant that Vermonters are uninsured because they could not purchase health insurance in VT.

        If some of these uninsured Vermonters have a significant medical event such as cancer, automobile accident, heart attack etc. then you can be certain that there will be legal cases against Vermont. In the second oldest state, the legal ramifications could be severe as a much greater risk for older folks to have an extended stay in the hospital.

        • Hod Palmer

          While the human ramifications could be severe, the State, I believe, enjoys something called Governmental Immunity.

          • Hod, how about immunity at the polls?

            Over $400 million being spent on setting up the exchange. Now, does that amount cover the secret contingency plan the Governor won’t disclose?

          • rosemarie jackowski

            Hod…. The problem is that the State does not have to invoke Sovereign Immunity. The State of Vermont has a policy of out-moneying in Court any citizen who is harmed by government.

            The history of the office of the VT AG is to defend the State no matter how extreme the harm to citizens.

            “…Rescind the Vermont policy which supports the frivolous Defense of the State in cases where the State is clearly at fault…”. Excerpt from my official 2012 Campaign Statement (17 V.S.A. 2810b)

  • Craig Powers

    Just wondering how is that “nothing burger” tasting now?

  • Chris Lewis

    Is anyone surprised by this?

    Mark Larson should get his resume ready.

    • Hod Palmer, III

      Maybe he can get Katherine Sebelius job at HHS, it may becoming open

      • Chris Lewis

        True. At least Sebelius will be getting asked tough questions by congress – whereas Mr. Larson will simply continue to tell everyone in Vermont he’s doing a great job.

  • Peter Washburn

    The pending looming legal disaster and financial devastation now being perpetrated on the captive citizens of this fine state will be a crippling blow that Vermont may not be able to recover from, and all because of Shumlin’s quest for a legacy. He’ll have a legacy all right. Can anybody (that hasn’t already left or shortly will leave the exchange) step up and say “uncle” and admit that this is all a mistake and needs to be completely redone? Pride goeth before a fall…..

  • Karen McCauliffe

    Hod, you might be just right about governmental immunity.

    Perhaps if it appears that my family with be uninsured in VT on Jan 1, 2014 then we need to move to another state to for 6 months in 2014 and become a resident of that state. Just work part time in the state of Vermont.

    My husband and I have been very healthy and consume next to nothing in health care, but because of our ages I do worry about being uninsured on Jan 1, 2014. At our ages, we could be hospitalized tomorrow.

    I am glad that you brought up the point of governmental immunity although now I have more than a little mental anguish if my family will be uninsured on Jan 1, 2014. This is even more serious than I realized and I am very distraught.

  • Jim Christiansen

    The failure of the website is just the beginning of this story. The coming story is the huge increase in insurance costs for comparable plans with comparable deductibles for municipalities and those with quality insurance.

    The health insurance rates for the Town of Huntington went up 30+% for the same coverage with the same deductible (with the same company, BCBS). That cost increase will now be spread to the taxpayer through the regressive municipal property tax.

    Andrew, please investigate the anticipated cost shift to the taxpayer when Vermont teachers are forced to enroll in VT Health Connect.

  • rosemarie jackowski

    Cronyism is nationwide… no-bid contracts !!!

    Michelle Obama’s Princeton classmate is a top executive at the company that earned the contract to build the failed Obamacare website.

    Toni Townes-Whitley, Princeton class of ’85, is senior vice president at CGI Federal, which earned the no-bid contract to build the $678 million Obamacare enrollment website at CGI Federal is the U.S. arm of a Canadian company.

    Townes-Whitley and her Princeton classmate Michelle Obama are both members of the Association of Black Princeton Alumni.

    Read more:

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