Administration sees ‘great progress’ in health care exchange signups

Gov. Peter Shumlin and Peter Sterling, executive director of Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security Education Fund, speak to reporters Thursday in the Cedar Creek Room at the Statehouse. Photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger

Gov. Peter Shumlin and Peter Sterling, executive director of Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security Education Fund, speak to reporters Thursday in the Cedar Creek Room at the Statehouse. Photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger

There was a dramatic spike this week in the number of people who signed up for health care on the state’s exchange, Vermont Health Connect. The delayed deluge of applications — 5,000 were filled out in the past four days — brings the total number of Vermonters who should be settled with their coverage at the start of 2014 to 45,000, the administration says.

That’s roughly two-thirds of the 65,000 Vermonters whose insurance expires at the start of the year. Another 9,300 people have three months worth of breathing room — their plans have been extended through March 31, either because their employers chose that route or because the payment piece of the website isn’t working for them.

“We are making great progress and we have more progress to make,” Shumlin said Thursday.

With 10 days remaining until the Dec. 23 deadline, the 11th-hour push needs to continue. For that reason, uplifting anecdotes abounded at the news conference Shumlin held Thursday to usher the remaining Vermonters into the exchange.

For just about everything you wanted to know about the state’s health care exchange, but were afraid to ask, go to VTDigger’s user’s guide to Vermont Health Connect.

The guide includes an interactive chart that helps you find your estimated subsidy level instantly.

Shumlin held up Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, who signed up for a plan through a navigator on his drive to the Statehouse earlier that morning, as an example of how easy the process can be. Zuckerman said he went 15 years without health insurance.

The message, repeated by lawmakers, a navigator and someone who’d successfully signed up, was the same: signing up isn’t as maddening as it’s been made out to be.

Peter Sterling, a navigator and executive director of Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security Education Fund, said it only takes him 20 to 25 minutes to sign someone up on the website.

“Back in late October, early November, it probably would have taken me closer to 45 minutes to an hour,” Sterling said.

“Almost everyone says as they leave, after I’ve enrolled them, ‘Wow, that’s a lot better than I thought it was going to be,’” Sterling said. “I think the bad experiences people have been reading about are stopping people from enrollment or making people reluctant to enroll because they are fearful of how onerous it’s going to be.”

If people miss the deadline, they can extend their coverage through March 31, but they’ll miss out on federal subsidies available to households at or below 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. Shumlin said the state expects to receive $200 million to $400 million in the form of individuals’ health care subsidies from the federal government.

A second wave of Vermonters — the roughly 30,000 people who have plans that don’t expire before January — will need to sign up before open enrollment ends.

The administration has sent out paper invoices to people who have signed up. Those bills need to be paid by Jan. 7.

Of the 45,000 Vermonters who’ve signed up, 29,200 are people whose employers that decided to bypass the website and sign up directly with an insurance carrier. The remainder signed up either through the Vermont Health Connect portal or by filling out a paper application.

The payment portion of the website is still not working for small businesses, and Shumlin continued to decline to estimate when the problem will be resolved, saying only, “We’ll let you know as soon as that’s working perfectly.”

That piece, according to Department of Vermont Health Access (DVHA) Commissioner Mark Larson, is the major missing component of the exchange site.

At the close of the news conference, Robin Lunge, Shumlin’s health care reform director, whispered into the governor’s ear: “Robin reminded me of a big omission,” Shumlin told the crowd, “which is that we wouldn’t be standing where we are right now if it were not for the extraordinary efforts of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont and MVP.”

Those are the two health insurance providers participating in Vermont Health Connect.

Alicia Freese

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