‘Nothing-burger’ is something after all
By PETER HIRSCHFELD
and Neal P. Goswami
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | October 04,2013
Toby Talbot / AP Photo
Peter Sterling, right, a "navigator" for Vermont Health Connect, answers questions for Beverly Beach, of Morristown, on Tuesday in Montpelier. Gov. Peter Shumlin said Thursday that the state is making significant progress in ironing out hitches with the launch of the online portal to the state's new health insurance exhange.
MONTPELIER — State officials, including Gov. Peter Shumlin, say significant progress has been made by the state and its vendors to address technical issues with the state health care exchange launched this week.
Shumlin, addressing reporters Thursday at a Statehouse press conference on another matter, said he and other officials expected technical issues with Vermont Health Connect.
Vermont has fared better than other states this week as online health insurance markets required under federal health care reform kicked off across the country, he said.
“I told you from the beginning that there were going to be hiccups and there were going to be bumps in the road,” Shumlin said. “I would argue that, perhaps, our bumps in the road are less severe than most states experienced. As you know, some other states literally had to take their website down on the first day.”
Shumlin has steadfastly shrugged off concerns about the exchange’s capabilities. He previously referred to a one-month delay in the exchange’s ability to accept payments as a “nothing-burger.”
Thursday, Shumlin acknowledged that issues with the exchange website, which has loaded slowly or not at all for many people, have made for a more substantial sandwich.
“The website is a something-burger,” the governor said. “The challenges that we’re having with the website obviously are something-burgers.”
Both Shumlin and Mark Larson, commissioner of Vermont Health Access, said Thursday that continuing work by state employees and contractors has improved loading speeds on the front page of the website.
However, Larson acknowledged to a panel of lawmakers Thursday that slow speeds continue to frustrate users who attempt to create accounts and log in to the portion of the system that allows for the side-by-side comparison shopping that was to be the hallmark of the website.
“We have had challenges with the speed of the website and … this is frankly one of the challenges we continue to work on,” he said.
Larson said the state has also taken down key information on deductibles and out-of-pocket costs over concerns about the accuracy of the data.
While accurate information on those line items is available elsewhere on the site, he said the absence of that information has impeded the kind of customer experience on which Vermont Health Connect is supposed to make its name.
Larson said the problems will be solved in “days, not weeks.”
The nearly 250 “navigators” trained to help Vermonters use the system also were having trouble logging in to the site, he said, but that those problems, which he blamed in part on slow loading speeds, had begun to diminish.
“It’s something we’ve had teams working around the clock on and we hope to make progress on that,” Larson said.
As of 4 p.m. Wednesday, according to Larson, 20,000 people had visited the site, and more than 1,200 had created accounts.
In testimony before the Health Care Oversight Committee, Larson faced questions about criticism raised earlier this week by former Republican gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock, who authored an op-ed on missed deadlines by the contractor being paid more than $80 million to construct the exchange.
According to the state’s contract with CGI Systems and Technologies, the Virginia tech firm is on the hook for more than $5 million in penalties for the missed deadlines. As Brock pointed out, however, Vermont has yet to enforce any financial sanctions.
Sen. Kevin Mullin, a Rutland County Republican, wanted to know why.
“If there are penalties they should be paying to help offset the costs of those delays, then we should be going after them,” Mullin said.
Larson said the state retained the right to assess penalties on CGI, but he wanted to wait until the contractor’s work was complete before determining how much to extract from the company.
“We want to make sure we see the full implementation of the product before we assess the specific question of what are appropriate penalties for missed deadlines along the way,” he said.
Despite the ongoing challenges, Shumlin maintained that the Vermont exchange and federal health care reform are moving forward successfully.
“I know that there are many, many Republicans in Congress, and perhaps some in Vermont, who wish that this wasn’t working,” Shumlin said. “It is working. We can be proud of the progress that we’re making. This is about ensuring that Vermonters have access and Americans have access to affordable, quality health care.”
Meanwhile, as state officials get to work fixing glitches in the new online health insurance marketplace, they celebrated good news from Washington, D.C. The federal government said it will help pay for state subsidies being offered for plans sold in the exchange.
Legislators earlier this year approved the allocation of $4.5 million to help offset increases in the cost of health insurance faced by lower-income Vermonters who are required to purchase from the new exchange.
Larson said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has approved a three-year Medicaid budget for Vermont that will include a federal match for the state premium assistance.