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Health Care Exchange Has Another Setback

Taylor Dobbs
Commerce Secretary Lawrence Miller (left) and Commissioner of Vermont Health Access Mark Larson at a press conference announcing the direct enrollment requirement for small businesses.

Continuing problems with the online payment system at the state's health care exchange has prompted Gov. Peter Shumlin to announce a new contingency plan for small businesses.

This is the second time that the Shumlin Administration has put a “safety net” in place for these companies. 

The online payment system has never worked and at the beginning of December the governor offered small businesses two options.

They could buy their coverage directly from the insurance companies and bypass the exchange, or they could keep their current policies in place for the first three months of this year.

"I am not willing to gamble on Vermonters access to health insurance." - Gov. Peter Shumlin, on the need for another contingency plan for small businesses.

Under the new plan, all the businesses that extended their coverage will now be allowed to use the direct purchase option. More than 20,000 small business employees will be affected by this change. The governor said he’s implementing this policy now to ensure that no businesses have a lapse in coverage.

“The website’s in testing. We don’t know when it’s going to work the way we wish it to work, and I’m not willing to gamble on Vermonters access to health insurance,” Shumlin said. “So this is a smart and sensible move to make.”

One of the goals of the exchange is to offer small businesses, and all of their employees, a choice of over 18 different policies. The governor said that option isn’t available under the direct purchase plan.

“It’s a disappointment that they’ll have to wait to have the kind of choice that I wish they would have until next year,” said Shumlin. “But we have to remember that this is all a new system, so they’re used to not having that choice.”

Mark Larson is the commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access. He said the new plan gives the state some breathing room to find out why the online payment system isn’t working.

“We also now have an opportunity to not rush testing, to be focused on what it takes to be successful when we launch the small business functionality, and to be able to ensure that when that occurs that it does so as smoothly as possible,” Larson said.

Members of the House Republican caucus held a press conference to call on the administration to delay the mandatory implementation of the exchange for a year. Minority leader Don Turner, R-Milton, said the new contingency plan is a step in the right direction.

“So I think we should give the governor a round of applause for doing that,” said Turner, as the Republicans clapped. “With that said, we strongly feel that the governor and Commissioner Larson are not willing to be fully transparent about the problems at VHC and CGI, and Vermonters remain at risk today of not having health insurance.”

Turner called on the administration to launch a bipartisan investigation into the problems at Vermont Health Connect. Administration officials have said that oversight work will be done by an independent organization and they expect a report before the end of the session.

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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