House overwhelmingly backs funding for Health Connect study


Lawmakers endorsed the funding as an amendment to an affordable housing bill. The underlying bill, H.865, then was given preliminary approval in a vote of 139 to 3.

The $400,000 will be pulled from three sources of unused money: the Green Mountain Care Board; the state treasurer's office; and the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. The Legislature's Joint Fiscal Office will facilitate the independent review.

Because the amendment had nothing to do with affordable housing, any member of the House could have challenged whether it was appropriate for the amendment to be tacked onto H.865. However, nobody did.

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, said he instructed his caucus Wednesday morning not to crush the amendment. He said his party has been asking for an independent analysis of Vermont Health Connect for three years.

"The administration kept saying, 'Oh, yeah, we'll do it,'" Turner said. "These guys wouldn't do any oversight. Nobody did anything for three years. We finally got that, where at least it's JFO, at least it's independent."

"We feel so strongly about this, for Vermonters who are suffering from this mess, that we weren't going to bring up the political issue," he said. "And we could've. We could've killed it. We could've said, 'This is not germane,' and truly I think the majority would've wanted that."

The vote on the amendment crossed party lines, and the 139-3 vote on the underlying H.865 makes it a strong bill as it advances toward the Senate. Assuming the House gives its final approval, 20 yes votes in the Senate would mean Gov. Peter Shumlin would not have the power to veto the bill.

Shumlin and his Vermont Health Connect team have been staunch opponents of another assessment of the embattled health exchange. "I can think of many better ways to spend $400,000 than on a study to tell us what we already know," the governor said after Wednesday's vote.

VTDigger has filed public records requests seeking copies of internal assessments regarding Vermont Health Connect. The Agency of Human Services requested a 10-day extension to provide the assessments.

On Wednesday, the day the records were due under Vermont statute, the agency sent an email at 4:54 p.m. but did not attach the documents. The public information officer for the agency, Dean Mudgett, did not return a voicemail placed at 5 p.m.

One issue that has dogged Vermont Health Connect is a backlog of customers waiting to have the system process updates to their account information; that number stands at around 3,800, according to a presentation Wednesday morning. Lawrence Miller, the chief of health care reform, characterizes the backlog as an "inventory."

Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, was one of the five lawmakers who voted against the analysis on the House Floor. She said: "Mr. Speaker, I can save this body $400,000. Vermont Health Connect doesn't work."

Rep. Matthew Trieber, D-Bellows Falls, also voted no. "When it's guaranteed to pass, there's a principled point to be made, which is, we were carving out $400,000 from little tiny appropriations to fund this study," Trieber said.

He said the Department of Vermont Health Access budget is $1.2 billion "of all funds. If you need money for a study for Vermont Health Connect and you can't find $400,000 out of $1.2 billion of all funds, there's a bit of an issue there."

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, voted yes. She said: "Any of my constituents could give an analysis of Vermont Health Connect for zero money and a few coarse words."

"But I voted for it because, in my view, I think we need to instill some faith back into state government with regard to Vermont Health Connect, and this new analysis would do just that," Scheuermann said.


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