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

Navigating the New Health Insurance Marketplace, One Employee At A Time

VPR/Charlotte Albright
Shannon Wilson (seated) shows Charlene Burke (left) and Louisa Olson (right) the website for Vermont's new healthcare Exchange.

It’s been almost three weeks since Vermont’s new health insurance exchangewent online. Despite technology problems, some employers are forging ahead, enrolling employees. The Vermont Chamber of Commerce has been sending navigators to workplaces to help with that process.

One recent stop was in Barre.

Louisa Olson doesn’t pay anything for health insurance right now because her employer, Barre Housing Authority, picks up the full tab. So she was worried that, starting in January, she would take a big hit.

And how much does Olson know about this new healthcare system?

“Not very much, only that it’s mandatory,” she said before the session began.

To compare the 18 new plans to the insurance she already has, Olson first has to set up an account. Shannon Wilson, the Chamber of Commerce navigator, showed another navigator hired by the state how to  type in Olson’s name, which must match a roster already loaded into the system by the employer.

“After that point you’ll see a screen that says the application is pending and then you’ll know that they are in the system, but that’s as far as we can get,” Wilson explained.

That’s where the online system bogs down. So the navigators switch to paper, and the human resource director will have to enter all that data into her computer at a later date.

To choose a plan, each subscriber needs to know how much the employer is contributing to the premium cost. Barre Housing Authority wants to be generous, says Human Resource director Jaime Chioldi.

“We will pay up to 80 per cent of any plan they choose, but everybody will be expected to pay some part of their health insurance,” Chioldi said.

But navigator Shannon Wilson said the computer won’t accept a percentage, only a dollar amount given to each employee. She said that can be plugged in later. For now, she said, it’s important just to get everyone’s account set up -- in privacy.

After their private meetings, a few employees casually compared notes in the lobby.

"I’m still confused,” Charlene Burke said, laughing.

That’s because she doesn’t know how these plans compare to the one she gets through her husband’s workplace, in terms of deductible and out-of-pocket costs. She didn’t make a choice.

But her co-worker, Kay O’Neil, was pleasantly surprised by what she will pay for what she will get.

“I’m still holding my breath because it’s like, too good to be true,” O'Neil said.

And Louisa Olson, the apprehensive employee who started our story?

“I know I personally was panicking and, you know, I picked up the attitude that, forget it, I’m just not going to do health insurance.  But it actually went very smoothly and I’m very happy with it,” she said. 

The navigators had expected a little more grumbling, because these employees will now face higher deductible costs than they used to have.

And, the navigators say, unlike Barre Housing, most employers in the private sector are contributing much less than 80 per cent.  

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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