Shumlin optimistic about Vermont Health Connect deadline

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Shumlin optimistic about Vermont Health Connect deadline

Thu, 05/28/2015 - 3:47pm -- tim

by Morgan True Governor Peter Shumlin remains “cautiously optimistic” the state and its contractors will complete the needed functionality for Vermont Health Connect, the state’s troubled health care exchange, by the May 31 (Sunday) deadline. Shumlin said he receives daily, sometimes multiple, updates on VHC and the progress of its primary contractor, Optum, in automating the process for changing personal or plan information online.

“As you know, with any major technology project you can hit a glitch at any time, but we’re cautiously optimistic” that the state will meet a self-imposed May 31 deadline for completing the function, the governor said at a Wednesday news conference in Waterbury Center.

He thanked contractors and state employees, who he said are “working their tails off” and have not had a weekend or holiday off for several weeks. file photo

Automating the change process will relieve many of the frustrations and headaches faced by customers and should ultimately reduce the cost of operating the exchange by avoiding labor-intensive manual workarounds, according to state officials.

The lack of automated changes is a major reason thousands of customers have waited, and continue to wait for weeks or months to change plans, cancel a plan, add someone to a plan or make any payments.

In some cases that has forced people to “delay obtaining needed care” or make out-of-pocket payments for medical services — despite paying thousands in premiums — and others have paid incorrect premium amounts, sometimes for months on end, according to a recent state auditor’s report.

VHC has completed development work and is now testing the new change function, he said.

“When we find glitches we go in and fix them, and we always have the debate in the morning ‘Oh, my God, how big is that problem’ and then they go in and fix it, and we hope to make it,” Shumlin said in describing the process.

State officials have said users won’t immediately be able to access the new change function. It will be implemented first on the back end for customer service workers to input changes for users and, if successful, it will be rolled out on the website.

Asked if there would be any way for the public to know if the deadline was met, Shumlin said, “We would be happy to show to anybody how the change-of-circumstance function makes a pretty huge difference to working down the backlog (of requested changes) … That’s been the intent all along.”

He then added, “We’ve been clear from the beginning. You have to be working at Vermont Health Connect to understand this technology that we’ve been hoping for since we launched. That doesn’t diminish the accomplishment.”

It’s unclear whether the governor was implying the public would not be able to understand what they were seeing, were there to be a demonstration of the change function.

WCAX reporter Kyle Midura then asked if he could bring a camera crew to film such a demonstration, and the governor appeared game.

“We will happily invite you in to show you how it works. We want to make it first. That’s our first challenge,” he said.

While the Sunday deadline is self-imposed — “I set an artificial deadline, let’s be honest about this, I just said, know by the end of the month we want this darn thing to work,” Shumlin said — there is contingency language in the recently passed budget providing legislative oversight for a transition to some version of the federal exchange in 2017 if it and another deadline in October are not met.

The October deadline is to automate the renewal process, so that VHC doesn’t have to complete another paper renewal during the 2016 open enrollment period, which begins mid-November.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and legislators have met with officials from the Rhode Island and Connecticut exchanges, and a recent article in The Hill suggests many states are looking at ways to collaborate or merge state-based exchanges. Sharing services for call centers, which are large and costly to operate, is one area several states are reportedly looking at cost-sharing options.

Shumlin said his administration is “actively pursuing” ways to collaborate with other exchanges, but pointed out any such agreements would require federal approval.

The “best likelihood” for collaboration, he said, is for the small business exchanges, which Vermont has yet to build but that are operating in other states. Small businesses in Vermont must currently buy plans directly from participating insurers.