• Online health care applications are climbing
    By Neal P. Goswami
    VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | November 20,2013
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    MONTPELIER — Nearly 5,100 insurance plans have been selected on the state’s online health insurance exchange after a spike in applications in recent weeks, according to the Shumlin administration.

    Vermont Health Connect, the state’s version of the online insurance marketplaces required under the federal Affordable Care Act, now has 16,286 accounts. The administration reported Tuesday that 5,091 have completed the process of picking an insurance plan.

    More people have submitted applications so far in November than in the entire month of October. Less than 2,200 plans had been selected at the end of October after the exchange’s launch Oct. 1.

    “That doesn’t surprise me,” said Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access.

    “What I’m also noticing is that every week the number of applications started and submitted is larger than the week before,” he said. “So there’s a clear pattern with each week of the numbers of Vermonters starting their applications and selecting plans increasing.”

    Technical problems with the website prevented many Vermonters from completing the process early on. The administration, through its contractor, CGI Systems and Technologies, has been scrambling to address the site’s issues and improve its functionality.

    The ongoing website work is already allowing more Vermonters to sign up for insurance plans, according to Larson.

    “I’m hopeful that some of the upgrades that we’ve made have made it easier for individuals and families applying through the online applications for getting through the steps,” he said.

    Larson said the rate of people submitting applications and applying for financial assistance available through the law is going up. Media attention, albeit mostly negative since the exchange’s launch, has drawn attention to the site.

    The Shumlin administration has maintained since the launch that it expected enrollment to increase as the deadline for obtaining insurance approached.

    “We always expected that people would take some time to consider and compare their options before actually making a selection. What we’re seeing is that more and more people are starting the process of applying,” Larson said.

    The exchange site still does not provide the ability for consumers to pay for the plans they select. That, along with the rocky rollout of the exchange site, prompted Gov. Peter Shumlin to postpone a state mandate for coverage on the exchange for individuals and small businesses until March 31. The mandate had been set to kick in Dec. 31.

    Current health plans can now be extended to March 31. And small businesses can now seek coverage directly through the state’s insurance carriers — Blue Cross Blue Shield and MVP Health Care — as well as through the exchange site. The additional options are helping the administration ensure coverage for Vermonters on Jan. 1, Larson said.

    “They make it so that Vermonters have more avenues to access Vermont Health Connect coverage as well as more time if they choose to avail themselves of it. I think that we will provide a pathway to all Vermonters who are looking for coverage in January to access it,” he said.

    The administration, meanwhile, is still working to perfect the online payment function.

    “We have been testing a number of scenarios around payment and carrier enrollment. In order for us to feel like that functionality is ready to go live, we have to get through many, many different tests. We are making good progress with that testing, but we have not completed it at this point,” Larson said.

    Testing of various scenarios continues “to make sure that the different types of applications that might be seen coming into the system are all functioning,” he said.

    Included in the testing scenarios are individuals, couples and families. Some of the scenarios are complicated because they include several insurance plans from both carriers.

    “We have been able to complete many test cases, but not all,” Larson said. “We are definitely able to do a variety of different scenarios, but, again, we haven’t gone through all of them.”

    Still, Larson said each test, even those that fail, is helping to perfect the system.

    “Getting to success actually means working through tests that fail. It’s not a roadblock. Oftentimes it’s by testing and retesting that we make the improvements that have to occur,” he said.

    @Tagline:neal.goswami @timesargus.com
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