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

Shumlin Extends Health Care Option For Small Businesses

The Shumlin administration has announced another contingency plan to help small businesses purchase health insurance next year but the proposal is raising new concerns about the ongoing technical problems at the state’s healthcare exchange.

"Continuing that option made a lot of sense during the second year." Health Care Reform Director Robin Lunge on the decision to extend direct enrollment for 2015

When it was clear last fall that the online payment system at Vermont Health Connect wouldn’t be ready because of technical problems, the Shumlin Administration made a key decision.

Rather than risk chaos in the business community as many companies considered their health insurance options, the administration decided to allow small businesses to bypass the exchange and purchase their coverage for 2014 directly from Blue Cross and MVP.

The online payment system now works for individuals but it still doesn’t work for small businesses and there’s no target date for it to launch.

So the administration has extended the direct purchasing option for small businesses for another year. Robin Lunge is director of health care reform for the administration.

“Businesses did take a lot of comfort in having multiple options for buying health insurance plans including going directly to Blue Cross or MVP,” said Lunge. “And so we felt that that comfort was very important and continuing that option made a lot of sense during the second year.”

Lunge says the extension proposal is a good back up plan in case the online payment system isn’t ready in the fall.

“At this point my understanding is that we are on track to have the online system up for the fall," she said. "It certainly doesn’t hurt to have the certainty that this is an option.”

Betsy Bishop, the president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, says the contingency plan is good news for the state’s small business community.

“We haven’t seen as much progress on the ability for small businesses to purchase directly on the exchange so to have this contingency in place now will really help us go forward,” she said.

Bishop says most of these problems could have been avoided if participation in the exchange had been voluntary and not mandatory.

“So you have a mandate in place that says this is the only place where you can purchase insurance and yet it’s not fully operational," she said.

Beginning in 2016, larger businesses will come under the scope of the law.  Because of the ongoing problems at the exchange, Bishop is urging the administration to push this mandate deadline back until 2017.

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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