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Legislative Leaders Holding Shumlin To May 31 Deadline For Vermont Health Connect

Angela Evancie
Gov. Shumlin, pictured here on April 2, is backing away from an ultimatum he made that if Vermont Health Connect couldn't be functional by May, he'd start the transition to the federal exchange. Legislative leaders are taking the deadline seriously.

Legislative leaders are ready to pull the plug on Vermont’s health insurance exchange if a key component isn’t working by May 31. But Gov. Peter Shumlin doesn’t think the fate of Vermont Health Connect should rest entirely on the new deadline, even though he’s the one who set it.

Shumlin issued the ultimatum last month, saying that if Vermont Health Connect couldn’t meet two key milestones, then he’d begin the transition to a federal version of the online insurance exchange.

The milestones he established were clear – change-of-circumstance functionality was to be delivered no later than May 31, and automatic reenrollment services needed to be running smoothly by November.

“And if in fact we didn’t meet either of those milestones, on Nov. 15 we would recommend to joint fiscal which of the alternatives we would go to,” Shumlin said back on March 20.

Less than a month after setting the deadlines, however, Shumlin appears to be easing away from at least one of them.

“As I said, we believe we’re going to have [change of circumstance] working on May 31,” Shumlin said Tuesday. “If we don’t, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Legislative leaders are taking the ultimatum perhaps more seriously than the governor who issued it.

If June 1 arrives, and change-of-circumstance functions have yet to become automated, Speaker Shap Smith says it’s time to pull the curtain on Vermont Health Connect. Vermont wouldn’t be able to begin using a federal version of the exchange until 2017. But still, Smith says the state should go ahead and cement its decision to move away from the state-run exchange if the May 31 deadline goes unmet.

"And if they don't [meet the deadline], I've got to tell you, the confidence level in our ability to manage a system, to build a system, is pretty much near zero." - Senate President John Campbell

“At that point in time I don’t think we can continue with the current exchange,” Smith says. “I think we have to look at whatever options are available for us to move to something that works.”

Senate President John Campbell says failure to meet the deadline will erode what little credibility the exchange has left.

“And if they don’t, I’ve got to tell you, the confidence level in our ability to manage a system, to build a system, is pretty much near zero," Campbell says.

Shumlin says Vermont faces unnecessary fiscal and operations risks by adopting a federal version of the site. Not only would the state have to continue building out the exchange anyway – it will be needed to process Medicaid enrollees, administration officials say – the state would also incur whatever additional costs come with using a federal version of the website.

Shumlin says the standoff over the future of the exchange will likely be a moot point, since he intends to have the functionality working by May 31. The change of circumstance function would allow the exchange to input changes to customers’ life circumstances automatically; right now, the administration is using an expensive and time-consuming manual process.

“Let’s not create conflicts that we don’t need to have,” Shumlin says. “I’m focused on trying to get the job done.”

But a recent report from State Auditor Doug Hoffer raises new questions about the state’s ability to meet the milestone by the end of May.

Shumlin says the costs of abandoning the state-run exchange in favor of a federal version of the system are severe. And he says policy makers need to let sharp analysis drive the decision-making process, not deadlines.

"Let's be honest about this. If it did not work on May 31 and it worked on June 2, would you move to the federal exchange?" - Gov. Shumlin

“Let’s be honest about this. If it did not work on May 31 and it worked on June 2, would you move to the federal exchange?” Shumlin says.

So then why did Shumlin himself put so much emphasis on a date certain?

“I felt like it was really important that we be clear with Vermonters about what our expectations are. These are our expectations, that change of circumstance is going to work by May 31, and that we’re going to be able to smoothly do reenrollment by October,” Shumlin says.

And lawmakers, for now at least, seem firm in their intention to hold the governor to that timeline.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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