• Lawmakers to preview health exchange website
    January 21,2013
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    Lawmakers next week will get a sneak peek at one of the more expensive websites the state of Vermont has ever constructed.

    For the 100,000 or so residents who will be required to purchase their health insurance from an online exchange beginning in 2014, “Vermont Health Connect” will become the one-stop shop for all their insurance needs.

    Users will simply type in their income and other information, and the site will produce a list of what could be as many as 30 options for their review.

    Consumer satisfaction will no doubt hinge largely on the ease with which Vermonters — web savvy or not — can navigate the online marketplace.

    The Department for Vermont Health Access inked a two-year, $32 million contract with the Quebec-based CGI last month to create the digital innards of Vermont Health Connect. The Canadian tech company then subcontracted the user-interface portion of the job to Exeter, a Boston-based firm responsible for designing the website that Vermonters will use to try and figure out what plan is right for them.

    Both firms will be in the Statehouse on Wednesday to show off a beta version of the site to lawmakers.

    Legislation passed last year will require businesses with fewer than 50 employees to purchase their company health plans through the exchange. But lawmakers and the Shumlin administration are hoping that those businesses will simply drop their coverage, increase employees’ financial compensation, and encourage workers to use the extra money to buy insurance in the exchange.

    The rationale is twofold. Vermonters living within 400 percent of the federal poverty level — about $94,000 for a family of four — will likely be able to purchase insurance on the exchange for less than it’s costing their employers now. That’s because individuals buying products sold on the exchange will be eligible for federal premium assistance and tax credits. Federal assistance for businesses with company-wide plans won’t be so robust.

    Administration officials’ other motive: trying to maximize the dollar value of the federal assistance passing through the exchange and onto Vermont consumers.

    One day in the relatively near future, Peter Shumlin has said, Vermont will ask Congress for waivers to implement the nation’s first-ever single-payer system. If it’s successful in securing those waivers, the administration will ask the federal government to send in one lump sum all the money it’s currently spending on health care subsidies in Vermont.

    The more money Vermonters are drawing down from the feds in the form of premium assistance and tax credits in the exchange, the bigger the check Vermont will see when it flips the switch on single-payer.

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    You might remember “Sicko,” the 2007 documentary from Michael Moore that made the case for single-payer by contrasting the for-profit health care industry in the U.S. with government-run systems in places like Canada, Cuba and the U.K.

    Now, this state’s leading anti-single-payer group is stealing a page from the liberal provocateur as it tries to send precisely the opposite message.

    Vermonters for Health Care Freedom wants to raise $18,250 to fund production of “Lessons from Canada,” a documentary it says will show what a train wreck single-payer is north of the border.

    In an email to would-be benefactors, Jeff Wennberg, executive director of VHCF, says the documentary “will help us activate an already existing coalition of conservatives, independents, and moderate Democrats who think Vermont’s single payer plan is reckless.”

    Wennberg already has a trailer up — you can check it out at transaxt.com and follow the links.

    The teaser gives a little taste of what the full documentary would have in store.

    “This whole idea that it’s free, well it’s like if you have a free bar at a wedding, some people won’t be as careful as they should, and as a result the liquor may run out,” says one guy in a suit.

    Look for the health care debate to ramp up next Thursday, when the Shumlin administration unveils its long-awaited single-payer financing plan. They’d been scheduled to present the plan today — statute actually required them to — but are holding off until the governor drops his fiscal year 2014 budget.

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    Pent up demand for investment capital among agriculture entrepreneurs has sparked a massive response to the inaugural “Working Lands Enterprise Initiative.”

    As part of an attempt to fuel a “renaissance” of the ag economy, lawmakers last year created a $986,500 pot of money from which farm entrepreneurs could apply for grants. The response was overwhelming.

    The new program drew 184 preliminary applications from people seeking more than $9 million in funding. The requests are so numerous that the Working Land Enterprise Board will be “unable to invite all … applicants to submit a full proposal,” according to a press release from the Agency of Agriculture.

    The timeline for awarding grants has also been extended, to accommodate what will no doubt be a much longer review process.

    A number of lawmakers say the response spotlights the need for investment capital among a class of businesses that sometimes struggles with conventional financing options. Many of those same legislators will argue that the state would be well served providing some more start-up cash.

    Money invested in value-added ag and forest operations tends to stay in the local economy. And the capital can often mean jobs in rural areas struggling with higher unemployment rates.

    Look for proponents of last year’s “working lands” bill to use results from this first round of grant submissions to build the case for giving out more of them next year.
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