Health Care

Shumlin touts health exchange as best argument for Obamacare

Peter Shumlin

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks at a news conference Tuesday about Vermont Health Connect and the federal Affordable Care Act. Behind him is Chris Curtis, an attorney for Vermont Legal Aid. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

Gov. Peter Shumlin said Tuesday that Vermont Health Connect is working as well as it possibly can and the majority of users are not experiencing problems.

He said some Vermonters are still having difficulty with the health exchange, but they’re in the minority, and he characterized most of those issues as part of the nature of a technology project.

Shumlin gave his update right in the middle of open enrollment, the once-a-year period when Vermonters can sign up for insurance on the exchange or change their plans for any reason.

Through Jan. 31, Vermonters can use Vermont Health Connect to sign up for a commercial insurance product or Medicaid. The exchange’s commercial plans are designed primarily for people who cannot get insurance through an employer.

Shumlin said about 21,000 households have already renewed their plans, while an additional 51 are having problems with their renewals. “We expect to resolve those 51 cases in the coming days — not weeks, days,” Shumlin said.

Additionally, he said 95 percent of customer requests to make changes to their insurance plans — called changes of circumstance — are processed smoothly, and 89 percent of customer calls are being answered within 20 seconds.

“I personally believe that Vermont now has among the best-functioning state exchanges in America, and probably the best state exchange functioning in America,” he said.

The governor used the status update on Vermont Health Connect to defend the federal Affordable Care Act that created it. He said it would be “a disaster” for Vermont if President-elect Donald Trump dismantled the law, as he promised during the campaign.

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Trump said Tuesday he will nominate U.S. Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., an outspoken opponent of the Affordable Care Act, to run the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the federal Medicare program and state-federal Medicaid agreements.

The Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, is credited with bringing health insurance to about 25 million people — including tens of thousands in Vermont — by expanding income eligibility for Medicaid, subsidizing commercial policies, and prohibiting insurers from discriminating against women or people with certain health problems.

In Vermont, the percentage of people without health insurance fell from 7.6 percent in 2009 to 3.7 percent in 2014, according to data from the Department of Vermont Health Access. That number fell again to 2.7 percent in 2015, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

“A lot of us said, ‘Hey, let’s fear for the worst but hope for the best’” with Trump, Shumlin said. “Based on his initial appointments, I’m giving up some hope for the best. It’s a right-wing, all-male old boys’ club who want to deliver on the promises that were made in the campaign.”

Shumlin said more than 200,000 Vermonters are using Vermont Health Connect to get commercial insurance or Medicaid and that tens of thousands of the commercial insurance customers can afford their insurance only because of help they get from federal subsidies.

Peter Youngbaer

Peter Youngbaer, the executive director of the People’s Health and Wellness Clinic in Barre, speaks at a news conference Tuesday. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

If Vermont wanted to subsidize Vermonters’ commercial insurance plans on its own, it would need to come up with somewhere around $100 million a year, according to Sean Sheehan, the spokesperson for Vermont Health Connect.

Peter Youngbaer, the executive director of the People’s Health and Wellness Clinic in Barre, said the number of uninsured people coming to his free clinic for medical care declined by 40 percent following the Affordable Care Act.

Youngbaer said his former patients who now have insurance have been able to find primary care doctors through an active recruiting process by Central Vermont Medical Center. Now that so many are getting basic medical care, Youngbaer’s free clinic in Barre has started offering dental care.

He said hospitals are also doing well because more people are insured. He pointed to the nine hospitals that took in excess revenue in fiscal year 2015, when some hospitals overestimated how much free care they would have to provide to uninsured people.

“With the federal election, we are hearing daily from the people that we are (serving), their fear that what they’re applying for or what they’ve been covered by is going to go away,” Youngbaer said.

He said “there is a real psychological part of healing and getting better” when people are sick, but the election “has created a lot of uncertainty and fear in the population” that isn’t good for people. “I just hope we can address that in a really good way,” he said.

Chris Curtis, an attorney for Vermont Legal Aid, said the mantra in Washington, D.C., is to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, but when he asks what should replace the law, “you hear crickets.”

“The reason that nobody wants to talk about that is that what they would be replacing it with is higher costs associated with health care, a higher rate of uninsured, more people struggling to make ends meet because they can’t afford to pay their bills,” Curtis said.

He said repealing the Affordable Care Act would have an “incredibly destabilizing effect” on Vermont’s economy and people who depend on subsidized health insurance to get medical care.

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“(Repeal) is going to be incredibly confusing,” he said. “It’s going to be anxiety producing because nobody’s going to know what to do or where to turn.”

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Erin Mansfield

About Erin

Erin Mansfield covers health care and business for VTDigger. From 2013 to 2015, she wrote for the Rutland Herald and Times Argus. Erin holds a B.A. in Economics and Spanish from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she also attended journalism school. Erin has worked in public and private schools across Vermont and interned in the U.S. Senate. She has been published by the Columbia Journalism Review and the Society of Professional Journalists. She grew up in Killington.

Email: [email protected]

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