Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access. (VTDigger photo)
Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access. (VTDigger photo)

MONTPELIER -- Vermont officials announced on Wednesday that the state will offer special enrollment options in Vermont Health Connect to anyone who has had trouble signing up for health insurance on the state-run website.

State officials extended the enrollment deadlines on the same day the federal government and other states announced they will offer people who have been stymied by website glitches more time to obtain medical insurance.

If an individual has made an effort to sign up for health insurance through Vermont Health Connect before the March 31 deadline for open enrollment, the state will work with them to make sure they get that coverage, regardless of whether they complete the process before the deadline.

In some cases, the state will offer retroactive coverage.

"Our message today is simple: Sign up," Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access, said in a statement. "If you think you've missed a deadline or you are unsure about your options, log on and sign up. If you've had an issue with your application, call us. We will be working one-on-one with any Vermonter who has had a problem to get them the coverage they need."

Eligibility for the special enrollment period will be determined by "self-attestation," or the honor system. Larson said that the special enrollment period for people who've had difficulty signing up would last as long as the feds allow, and Vermont's goal is to sign up as many people as possible.

Vermont Health Connect is expecting a surge in enrollment activity with the open enrollment deadline just five days away, and its call center will stay open through the weekend.

More than 55,000 Vermonters have picked a health plan through Vermont Health Connect since open enrollment began in October and more than 43,000 are fully enrolled in new coverage. That means roughly 12,000 Vermonters have yet to pay their first premium or are having problems completing the process.

There is still no way for people to make changes to their application or coverage through the website, and for those who made a mistake on their application or have had a change of circumstance - such as losing a job, having a child or getting married - must fix their problem by calling the customer service line at 855-899-9600.

Larson recently acknowledged that there are Vermonters who sought coverage for January, but because of the time-consuming process to make changes still have not been successfully enrolled.

Since its launch in October, the website has been glitch-riddled and cumbersome to use. Many of the wrinkles have been ironed out and the user interface has been improved, but some people have difficulty navigating without assistance.

People who were unable to complete the process through no fault of their own always had the option to request special enrollment, but originally they would have been expected to show documentation of their efforts.

Trinka Kerr, director of the Office of Health Care Advocate, said her office has cataloged such cases.

"It's a sensible solution in light of all the problems a significant minority of people have had in trying to enroll," she said.

In December, wait times at the call center averaged close to 30 minutes and many calls were dropped. It's unclear what would prevent a Vermonter from claiming they attempted to enroll in coverage in December that would begin in January and seeking retroactive coverage for the past three months.

Asked if the state has any concern that people will take advantage of the special enrollment option, a Department of Vermont Health Access spokeswoman said in an email, "Our biggest concern is getting Vermonters the coverage they need."