Mark Larson: Newsweek’s failure

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access, the home of Vermont Health Connect. It was also submitted to Newsweek magazine.

I feel obligated to respond to the story “Doubling Down on Obamacare” by Lynnley Browning that was published on the website Newsweek. Despite providing Newsweek with a list of inaccuracies in the story, only two of which have been corrected, there are more inaccuracies with the story and the reporting that deserve a public response.

Where to begin is easy. It was clear from the first sentence of this article that a premium would be placed on sensationalism over actual reporting. “If Obamacare gets blown up by Congress later this year, you might want to thank (or blame, depending on your prejudices regarding the Affordable Care Act) the state of Vermont. If it can’t make it there, some argue, it can’t make it anywhere,” Ms. Browning wrote. Really? Despite the hyperbole, no single state, let alone one that represents only 0.5 percent of Congress and has actually been one of the more effective states at implementing Obamacare, will cause Congress to “blow up” the president’s single biggest domestic achievement.

The bigger issue here is that Ms. Browning built her story on the premise that the Affordable Care Act is not working in Vermont. The reality is actually quite different. Everyone knows the rollout out of Obamacare has been problematic, and Vermont has not been immune to the challenges. But despite those troubles, Vermont has consistently been one of the most effective states in signing up individuals. According to the non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation, Vermont has enrolled 33.4 percent of its eligible population through its Obamacare exchange. That’s a percentage nearly two times higher than almost every other state.

In addition, the central charge in Ms. Browning’s story, based on conversations with an anonymous source, is that CGI, the contractor building Vermont’s exchange, willfully mislead and pulled the wool over Vermont’s eyes. The allegation centers around one test on July 26, more than two months before the Oct. 1 launch date, that CGI told the state of Vermont was designed to show connectivity to the federal data hub and the ability to determine a hypothetical customer’s eligibility. The test did exactly that. Ms. Browning asked me about the test, and I answered her questions. However, she never asked me to respond to the key, anonymous allegation that the test was a fraud. Had she been forthright about her angle, I would have gladly provided her with documentation that showed Vermont’s exchange had passed a number of tests, both before and after the date in question, demonstrating the successful connection to the federal data hub.

… it’s the responsibility of journalists to take overtly politically motivated sources with a heavy dose of skepticism. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen with this story.


Ms. Browning also inaccurately reported why Vermont ended contract discussions with the company Oracle. She failed to report the real reason despite the fact I explained it to her. The decision to end discussions with Oracle was made because the company would not agree to the state’s legal terms. In retrospect, given the difficulties of rolling out exchanges in Vermont and around the country, it was absolutely the right call to insist on legal protections for the state of Vermont. But that didn’t make it into the story.

Lastly, it is clear from the substance of the story that Ms. Browning worked closely with two Republican opponents of Vermont’s Gov. Peter Shumlin in writing her story. Nearly every allegation in Ms. Browning’s story has already been raised by either Randy Brock, the 2012 Republican gubernatorial candidate, or his campaign manager Darcie Johnston. And this isn’t just conjecture. Brock told Vermont reporters in subsequent news reports that he helped Browning with the story, passing her materials, emails and public record requests. Johnston even described her influential role in getting the story published in a fundraising email to supporters of her anti-health care reform group.

It’s not that Johnston and Brock don’t deserve to have their voices heard. They do. But it’s the responsibility of journalists to take overtly politically motivated sources with a heavy dose of skepticism. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen with this story.

Like every state, Vermont worked hard before and after the launch of its federally mandated exchange program to ensure Vermonters are able to access coverage and qualify for federal subsidies. Like every state, our exchange program is vastly improved from where we started, and we continue to make the changes still needed to deliver the best program possible and fully acknowledge there is work to be done. What I do expect is fair and balanced reporting of our challenges, as well as our successes. I hope to see that in future Newsweek coverage of this critical issue.

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