Shumlin renews call to keep Vermont Health Connect


MONTPELIER >> Gov. Peter Shumlin says Vermont Health Connect is working and that abandoning the exchange now would be a bad decision.

The backlog of people seeking to change the life circumstances of their insurance policies is down to 1,200 — from more than 3,000 in June — and nearly 9 in 10 customers seeking to report a life change "experience a smooth process," he said.

Shumlin said the rate of transaction errors on the exchange has dropped from 3.5 percent to 2 percent, and he credited the exchange with bringing the rate of Vermonters without health insurance down from 6.8 percent to 3.7 percent.

"Staff are now able to resolve urgent and complicated cases much more quickly," he said at a news conference last week. "The number of escalated cases — those that cause Vermonters longer delays and frustrations — has dropped from more than 250 earlier this spring down to 19."

"My biggest frustration right now is that we still have wait times that are too long when you call our call centers," Shumlin said. He said he met with the president of Maximus, which runs the call centers, and the company promised to bring on more staff to reduce the wait times.

Shumlin introduced Victoria Jarvis, who trains the in-person assisters for Vermont Health Connect. Jarvis told a story about a family who, when their daughter moved to Vermont for college, spent 62 hours unenrolling her from the federal exchange and just four hours enrolling her through Vermont Health Connect.

Shumlin also had a constituent from Bennington County, identified only by his first name, Billy, call into the news conference to say how his family of six started experiencing financial difficulties and was able to enroll in Medicaid through Vermont Health Connect.

Shumlin's news conference came one week after Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican who is seeking to succeed him as governor, renewed his call to abandon Vermont Health Connect and replace it with either the federal exchange or a partnership with Connecticut.

The comments also came days after a congressional report from Republican leadership said the federal government is not properly overseeing state health insurance exchanges and cast doubt on whether exchanges like Vermont Health Connect would be sustainable in the long term.

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The report quoted the acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who told a Republican representative from Texas in December: "All of the states are not sustainable. Whether or not they will be in the future, I'm not willing to predict."

Vermont spent about $200 million in federal money setting up Vermont Health Connect. This month, the Vermont Legislature's Joint Fiscal Office awarded up to $250,000 to Strategic Solutions Group of Massachusetts to advise the lawmakers by Dec. 15 on how to move forward with the embattled exchange.

The congressional report also said Vermont underestimated maintenance and operational costs on Vermont Health Connect by $8.3 million for the first six months of 2015, and cites an audit of the exchange from 2015 saying the state should plan for "an alternative model for running an exchange."

"The financial sustainability of the remaining (state-based exchanges) is uncertain as unpredictable operational costs exceed revenues, enrollment into (state-based exchanges) remains low, and solutions such as user fees have proven ineffective," the congressional report says.

"As four of the original 17 (state-based exchanges) have transitioned to using the federal platform, and another announced its intention to close in 2017, it is likely that the remaining (state-based exchanges) will eventually opt out of running their own (exchange) as well," the report said.

Shumlin, a Democrat, was not fazed. "Aren't these the folks who have voted 64 or 65 times to repeal Obamacare?" he asked. "I wouldn't expect them to endorse the exchanges. I mean, I think they just voted again on it yesterday. Didn't they down there, those boneheads — the finest minds of the 17th century?"

Shumlin said members of the public now come up to him and grab onto his jacket to thank him for expanding health insurance options so their families don't have to worry about getting sick.

"I'm darn proud that you can buy insurance in Vermont at a more affordable level than you would've if you didn't have Obamacare," he said.

Erin Mansfield covers health care and business for VTDigger.


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