Vt. towns struggle with new insurance website
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | October 24,2013
MONTPELIER — A recent memo from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns indicates that municipalities are struggling mightily to navigate the new insurance exchange on which most of them are now required to purchase employee health plans.
A statewide survey last week of more than 170 town administrators found that fewer than half have been able even to set up an account at Vermont Health Connect, and only about half of those who did managed to input information onto their employer accounts.
Three weeks into the launch of the new website, according to the survey, only a fraction of municipalities have succeeded in uploading their entire employee rosters onto the exchange.
In her memo to towns, Kelley Avery, health benefit programs administrator for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, said “We understand how frustrating the process of registering with (Vermont Health Connect) is, because we at VLCT are in this with you — both as a resource and as a small employer.”
Avery said VLCT had provided Commissioner of Vermont Health Access Mark Larson with a “summary of your responses to assure that the state has hard evidence of the extraordinary efforts you have been making for your employees and the difficulties you have had to endure.”
Steve Jeffrey, executive director of the VLCT, said he’s convinced that officials in the Shumlin administration “are doing everything in their power to live up to the promises they’ve made.”
“They’re working very hard to make it happen, and I guess if anything can make it happen, it would be effort that’s being made there,” Jeffrey said. “But I’m not totally convinced it’s going to go as planned at this point.”
The difficulties plaguing enrollment efforts on the exchange in Vermont prompted new calls from Republicans Wednesday to postpone a mandate, passed by lawmakers last year, that will require employers with 50 or fewer workers to purchase their health insurance through the exchange.
In a press release, Sen. Joe Benning and Rep. Don Turner, minority leaders of the Senate and House, respectively, said “it is unacceptable that we are asking people to move forward with a system that, at this time, is unable to guarantee them health care coverage as promised.”
If the website isn’t “fully functional” by Dec. 1, they said, then they want the Shumlin administration to use its executive authority to delay the exchange mandate, or to convene the full Legislature for a special session to examine other possible remedies.
“The well-being of Vermonters is at risk here,” Benning and Turner said. “It’s our job to represent their interests as we promised; Vermonters deserve it.”
Officials in the Shumlin administration, meanwhile, continue to issue reassurances. Shumlin on Monday said the technical glitches to blame for slow loading times, Web page error messages and other problems are being fixed quickly.
And while his administration has delayed for a second time the date by which one of the site’s key functions — the ability to communicate with the three private carriers actually selling policies on the exchange — will be complete, Shumlin said that feature will be ready to go shortly after Nov. 1.
He said that should give businesses and individuals required to purchase on the exchange — about 100,000 Vermonters total — plenty of time to enroll and pay for new policies before their current plans expire at the end of the year.
The vast majority of Vermont’s towns fall into the category of 50 or fewer employees, and the workers they represent number in the thousands. Jeffrey said that of the 385 municipalities with which VLCT deals — the list includes villages and solid waste districts — all but 20 have fewer than 50 employees. Nearly 100 have no employees at all.
The towns being required to purchase from Vermont Health Connect, according to Jeffrey, account for about two-thirds of the approximately 7,000 municipal employees in the state.
The issue for towns and other employers is one of timing. If the employees aren’t enrolled in new plans by the end of the year, then they risk seeing their coverage lapse.
In an email responding to the VLCT’s concerns Wednesday, Emily Yahr, education and outreach director at the Department of Vermont Health Access, said many of the problems will be fixed soon. But she said any town feeling a sense of urgency can bypass the website altogether by calling the “Support Services Unit” and dictating their information over the phone to someone who will fill out a paper application.
Aside from general problems setting up accounts, Avery’s memo enumerates what she called a “range of technical glitches and procedural difficulties” encountered by town administrators trying to use Vermont Health Connect, including things like the site not being able to recognize email addresses with more than two dots in them.
Yahr said that defect will be solved “very soon.”
Avery said in the memo that town officials are also concerned that online forms on Vermont Health Connect “require the person who sets up the account to answer questions about (employees’) personal finances,” something Avery said “is making many people uncomfortable.”
Yahr said the “salary field in the roster is not mandatory.”
Not all town administrators are sweating yet. Jeff Shultz, town administrator in Berlin, said given the trials and tribulations of his colleagues elsewhere, he’s waiting until November to begin going through the transition process.
In East Montpelier, town administrator Bruce Johnson said that after successfully loading the town’s seven employees into the system, he’s “assuming we’re in good shape.”
“In theory we’ve got the information in the system that needs to be there, but we haven’t seen the certificates … that the employees need before they can go in and set up their own plan. So we’re just waiting to see if everything played out like it’s supposed to,” Johnson said.