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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Delays On Health Care Exchange Spark Political Fight

AP/ Toby Talbot
Workers at the Vermont Health Connect call center talk to customers on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013 in Burlington.

State officials say a high volume of traffic on the website made it difficult for some people to log on to, without experiencing problems. There were 8,500 unique visitors to the website by late afternoon of its first day of operation.

Mark Larson is the commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access – the state agency that’s responsible for the Exchange. Larson says he’s confident that the current technical problems are a short term issue.

We clearly do not see this as a kind of long term issue - Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson

“With a new system of this size we knew that we would have some tweaks to make to make that everything is working well,” said Larson. “Obviously we’re disappointed that the site has been as slow as it has been today but we clearly do not see this as a kind of long term issue.”

Larson might not think that the Exchange faces significant long term problems but former Republican gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock certainly does.

Speaking from Melbourne, Australia, where he’s on a business trip, Brock said he has no confidence that the computer systems of the state, the Internal Revenue Service, and Blue Cross and MVP will be able to communicate smoothly with each other.

“The fact that they’ve connected once or twice in a test environment is not the same as processing thousands of records of Vermonters and their applications reliably,” said Brock.  “And that’s what my understanding is that the system cannot at this point do.”

A Canadian information technology group, CGI, has been awarded an 84 million dollar contract to build Vermont’s health care exchange. Brock says the group has missed a majority of its milestones and hasn’t been penalized by the state.

Last week, Governor Peter Shumlin referred to delays in the electronic payment system of the Exchange as a “nothing burger.”  Brock does not agree.

“Why haven’t why enforced our rights under the penalties ? And this is something that’s supposed to be done within 30 days of missing a milestone we have milestones that have been missed going back to June,” said Brock. “$5.1 million dollars in potential liquidated damages is not a ‘nothing burger’ It’s taxpayer money.”

Commissioner Larson acknowledges that the contractor has missed a number of milestones but he says he remains confident that the Exchange will work as designed in the coming weeks.

“We know that we have more work to do to implement the premium processing and payment options for November first,” said Larson.  “But I’m very confident that we will demonstrate once again our ability to get this important work done.”

And Larson says the state will consider the issue of penalties for the contractor once the Exchange is fully operational.

“We also have a responsibility to make sure that we’re managing contracts accountably and with an eye towards the financial interests of Vermonters and we fully expect to do that as well,” said Larson.

Larson expects that thousands of Vermonters will browse the policies on the Exchange during October and then make decisions about their specific coverage beginning in November.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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