Gov. touts progress of state health site
By Neal P. Goswami
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | December 13,2013
MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin said the state has so far managed to enroll about two-thirds of Vermonters eligible for coverage on the state’s online health-insurance exchange, despite months of technological glitches with the website.
Speaking at a State House press conference Thursday, and flanked by his top health-care reform aides and large charts touting the state’s success, Shumlin said about 45,000 of the 65,000 eligible Vermonters are now enrolled.
He said nearly all of the remaining 20,000 people not yet enrolled will have insurance coverage Jan. 1 through additional options.
“We’re making great progress and we have more progress to make,” Shumlin said. “As governor, my job is to ensure that we deliver on the opportunity that is afforded Vermonters in the Affordable Care Act. While it’s taking a little longer than we wished, we’re going to get it done and I’m proud of the progress we’re making. I’m encouraged by the folks who are signing up on a daily basis right now.”
A deadline of Dec. 23 is looming for individuals and families seeking health insurance with federal subsidies starting Jan. 1. Those who miss the deadline can still apply for and obtain coverage, but they will not be able to receive any available federal subsidies until the following month.
“The message today is pretty simple: This is your chance,” Shumlin said. “If you’re an individual or a family and you haven’t moved yet, move, because if you move by Dec. 23 it’s likely that you may well qualify … for a subsidy.”
According to the administration, more than 29,000 people are receiving coverage on the exchange through an employer and have been directly enrolled by the state’s two insurance carriers: Blue Cross Blue Shield and MVP Health Care. Those Vermonters are bypassing the exchange website, however.
Another 18,000 Vermonters currently enrolled in Catamount Health or Vermont Health Access Plan are eligible for coverage on the exchange. Shumlin said some have signed up and those that don’t by Dec. 23 will have their current coverage extended up to three months.
As of Thursday, about 15,000 people had enrolled directly through Vermont Health Connect, the state’s version of the online health-care exchange sites required under federal health-care reform, according to Shumlin. He said about 5,000 of those people enrolled this week alone.
“We’ve signed up in the last four or five days … as many people as signed up in the first five to six weeks of Vermont Health Connect,” Shumlin said, noting significant improvements to the website in the past month.
Vermont, as did other states and the federal government, experienced a host of initial problems with its exchange site. Enrollees experienced slow load times on the site or were unable to register altogether.
Because of the technical issues, the state allowed paper applications to be submitted. Shumlin said more than 2,000 of the 15,000 people enrolled through the exchange did so with a paper application.
The Department for Children and Families, which is handling the applications, hired 80 temporary workers to process the forms. Shumlin said it is “too early to tell” what the cost of those workers will be.
“It’s going to cost money, but the bottom line is, we’ve got to get it done,” he said.
Robin Lunge, the administration’s director of health care reform, said federal funds will cover most of the cost of the temporary workers.
Administration officials said Thursday they do not yet know how many of those who signed up for coverage did not previously have insurance. That information will be available in the future.
Shumlin said the state wants to provide health insurance to those who are currently without coverage, but the bigger goal is make sure coverage is affordable.
“Getting more uninsured (people) insured is certainly one of the goals, but not the only goal,” the governor said.
“For states that have very high uninsured rates, it’s certainly one of the primary goals,” he said. “Vermont already has one of the highest insured rates in America. Our challenge is affordability. We estimate that we’re going to draw down between $200 (million) and $400 million worth of federal help to pay for insurance.”
The state laid out plans last month to extend current coverage for Vermonters who will receive health insurance on the exchange as an employee of a small business. The majority of the 20,000 eligible for exchange plans but not yet enrolled will see their current plans extended because of ongoing problems with the site specifically related to small businesses.
A lapse in coverage is unlikely for nearly all Vermonters because the administration is allowing current plans to be extended into the new year, officials said.
“The number is very few because for those who are getting their insurance through work, they’re being directly insured in plans to start Jan. 1 or they’re extending their coverage into 2014,” said Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access.
The state continues to work with its main exchange site contractor, CGI Systems and Technologies, to fix lingering issues, Shumlin said.
Small business applications still can’t be processed through the website, and individuals and families cannot yet pay online for their plans.
Shumlin said Thursday he has “lost confidence in the contractors that promised to have us a perfectly humming website on Oct. 1.” He said the site will be fixed, but he will no longer offer a completion date because of previous missed deadlines.
“I’m bound and determined to get the website working the way it should have worked on Oct. 1 and we are asking the contractors to work 24/7, whatever it takes, holidays and the rest, to get the job done,” he said.
“We’re continuing to beat on them, harass them, to get that job done,” the governor said. “I’ve got to say, we’re making progress. But we cannot predict an exact day because they’ve missed so many dates so many times that we’re just not going to go there.”
Peter Sterling, executive director of the Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security, a group serving as a “navigator” for the state, said he has seen significant improvements in the website’s functionality for individuals and families.
“It’s gotten to the point where I can enroll someone in about 20 or 25 minutes from start to finish,” Sterling said. “Back in late October or early November, it probably would be closer to 45 minutes to an hour to get somebody through the process.”
And lawmakers, including House Speaker Shap Smith, said they, too, are hearing positive reviews from constituents.
“I’m actually heartened by the conversations that I’m having with individual constituents and what I’m hearing from other people in general that the website is improving,” Smith said at Thursday’s press conference.
“I’ve heard a lot of good stories from people about them thinking it was going to be not a very pleasant experience and it was going to cost more and they have been surprised.”