Municipalities grapple with Vt. Health Connect


WILMINGTON -- Before Jan. 1 arrived, people around the state were looking to sign up for new health plans, not only to conform with the Affordable Care Act but to continue having insurance.

Wilmington’s town employees were unable to sign up through the Vermont Health Connect application process, which could be done through an online form, a telephone call or submission by paper. They had been assisted by navigators and administrators of the exchange, Town Manager Scott Murphy told the Reformer.

"One or two people ended up signing up with no problems. Others had major problems," he added. "We had the staff of Vermont Health Connect working with us everyday. It wasn’t just our town but a lot of other towns were in the same boat."

Representatives from Vermont League of Cities and Towns spoke with the smaller municipalities that were having troubles signing up for health insurance plans. Blue Cross Blue Shield agreed to allow Wilmington employees to keep the plans that they had before Vermonters began signing up on the new exchange.

For a year, town employees from Wilmington will keep their old plans rather than joining Vermont Health Connect. It is not considered a waiver.

"Technically what happens is the town itself is still supplying health insurance for the individuals whereas with Vermont Health Connect, individuals had to sign up on their own," said Murphy.

In Halifax, town employees experienced similar difficulties when attempting to join the exchange.

"We had, in the end, chosen to go directly to the insurance provider (Blue Cross Blue Shield)," said Selectboard Chairwoman Edee Edwards. "We had gotten most of the way there through Vermont Health Connect but because of timing issues and wanting to be sure the employees wouldn’t have any hiccups come Jan. 1, we ended up being in a position where we could go directly to the vendor and sign up that way."

Leading up to the Jan. 1 deadline, interim Dover Town Administrator Jeannette Eckert reported progress -- or the lack of it -- to the Selectboard. She had spoken of town employees having difficulties signing up their spouses or dependents when attempting to enter the exchange.

"It seems like every day there’s another glitch that needs to be addressed," said Eckert.

During the November meeting where enrollment issues had been discussed, Dover Selectboard members mentioned that technological glitches had generally confirmed suspicions that attempting to enroll so many people into one system at a given time would create difficulties.

"The most important thing is that insurance for the employees doesn’t lapse," said Dover Selectboard Chairman Randy Terk.

He urged town employees to complete as much of the enrollment as possible so there would be no questions when the deadline hit.

Ultimately, Dover ended up not going through the Vermont Health Connect, Eckert told the Reformer.

"It was fine for individuals to sign up but the payment process for small businesses wasn’t working," she said.

Many local municipalities are considered small businesses in the exchange. Blue Cross Blue Shield, the company that the town had decided to choose for coverage, allowed small businesses to directly enroll through the company and employees could receive the same plan they wanted in the first place.

"Vermont Health Connect said that it could be a few months before they got it straightened out. We could have gone with the current plan and switched but it was going to be a nightmare," said Eckert. "We went with the Blue Cross Blue Shield suggestion and they enrolled us for the entire year 2014 starting on (Jan. 1)."

She mentioned that the difficulties in enrollment did not end there. Letters were received by employees confirming their coverage.

"Upon looking at what they sent us, they actually didn’t sign us up for the plans that people were supposed to get," said Eckert.

Four metal levels represent the different plans that people can choose through the new exchange. Each has its own set of deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses. All Dover employees had chosen the silver plan. But some were put on platinum while others were put on gold plans.

Blue Cross Blue Shield put in a high priority change, Eckert said, which will "get everyone back onto the silver plan."

"Now our bill is probably going to be all messed up until they get it straightened out," she added. "They’re asking us to pay whatever bill comes for January and February. Then in March, they’ll adjust it to reflect the silver rates."

All the Dover employees had confirmed they had received their identification cards that provide proof that they are covered.

The statewide plan, which continues to be a hot topic, includes having a single-payer universal health care system set up by 2017. It had been part of an initiative started by Gov. Peter Shumlin, when he appointed the Green Mountain Care Board to oversee not only making the Vermont Health Connect but eventually meeting the 2017 goal.

Legislators who visited a Wilmington Selectboard briefly discussed the plans to go to that type of system.

"There’s a clear commitment to go in that direction," said Rep. Ann Manwaring.

Senator Bob Hartwell weighed in, mentioning that Republican legislators would like to see funding for the Affordable Care Act diminished.

"If they get control of the Senate, the Democrats are definitely vulnerable," he continued. "There are entrenched interests in politics that are going to be hard to deal with this winter."

Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.


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