• GOP renews call for insurance delay
    By Neal P. Goswami
    VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | February 20,2014
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    MONTPELIER — House Republicans and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott are again calling for Gov. Peter Shumlin to drop a state mandate for obtaining health insurance on Vermont Health Connect until at least next year.

    With the open enrollment period ending soon and the online health insurance marketplace — required by the federal Affordable Care Act — still not fully functional, House Republicans reiterated their call to delay the mandate. Vermont is the only state requiring all small businesses and all individuals not covered by an employer to get insurance on the exchange.

    “Today we call on the governor to hear the bipartisan calls for a one-year delay on the implementation of Vermont Health Connect,” said House Minority Leader Don Turner, of Milton, at a State House news conference Wednesday. “We feel that it is very important at this time for the governor to make the decision to allow people to continue to buy outside the exchange and to delay implementation until the system is up and running as it was designed.”

    Democratic Sen. Dick Mazza, of Colchester, in an appearance Sunday on WCAX’s “You Can Quote Me,” voiced support for delaying the mandate.

    The exchange’s technology issues, present from its Oct. 1 launch, have been well documented. Its troubles, which prevent a large swath of the population from enrolling through the site, prompted the Democratic governor to provide additional options, including direct enrollment through Blue Cross Blue Shield and MVP Health Care. The administration also postponed the coverage mandate for three months and allowed an extension of 2013 health plans through March.

    But with the website still unable to enroll small businesses and unable to process payments online, Republicans are seeking relief from the coverage mandate for the 100,000 or so individuals and employees of small businesses that must purchase insurance on it.

    “We need the governor to step forward and accept the fact that this is not working the way it was designed and move forward,” Turner said.

    Bennington Republican Rep. Mary Morrissey said several privacy incidents, including seven that the administration revealed last week in which personal information was shared with unauthorized people, also warrants the delay.

    “Vermonters should not be forced to use a website that doesn’t work properly and puts their personal information at risk,” she said.

    Kaitlin Francis, a Burlington resident who said she is not affiliated with any political party, described her struggle to obtain insurance on the exchange. With multiple chronic diseases requiring prescriptions and doctor visits, Francis said, health coverage is a necessity.

    Francis said she had an employer-sponsored plan but lost coverage when she left her job to return to school. She then obtained coverage under the state-sponsored Vermont Health Access Plan and tried in November to enroll in an exchange plan.

    Francis said she spent “countless hours on the phone” to ensure she was enrolled in the right plan. Her premium payment has now been cashed, but she has yet to receive a policy number, she said. As a result, she is not currently covered and will be unable to pay for prescriptions beginning next week.

    Turner said Francis’ experience illustrates why a delay is needed.

    Meanwhile, Scott, who has taken heat from his own party for not coming out against Shumlin’s single-payer health plan slated to start in 2017, said the state should consider delaying the mandate until 2016, as the federal government has done for larger employers.

    “I had hoped that common sense would prevail, that we would follow the lead of the president, who has decided to extend … till 2016. I would think if we follow the lead of the federal government and the president and extended our mandate for at least, if not altogether, but at least 2016, it would give businesses the certainty they need,” said Scott, the co-owner of a construction company.

    Vermont Health Connect will likely work in the future and may serve Vermonters well, Scott said.

    “I think this IT system will eventually work,” he said. “The exchange could be beneficial in the future, but it’s not ready for prime time right now. As we know, it’s been fraught with issues.”

    Shumlin, speaking to reporters at an unrelated news conference Wednesday, again rejected the idea.

    “I think we might sometimes lose sight of the fact that my administration has exhibited extraordinary flexibility as we recognized the challenges of the website to ensure that no Vermonter goes uninsured and that business doesn’t have an undue challenge put upon them when they’re trying to run a business,” he said.

    More than 30,000 people have successfully purchased insurance on the exchange, Shumlin said, making it the most successful state per capita in the country.

    “Let’s not delay things that are working. Let’s continue to take the website, take the Affordable Care Act, and make it even better. I think that’s what we’re doing and what Vermonters expect us to do,” Shumlin said.

    neal.goswami @timesargus.com
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