MONTPELIER — State officials are celebrating the receipt of a $42.7 million federal grant they say will improve customer satisfaction in the new health care exchange.
The grant pushes to more than $150 million total federal contributions to the online insurance marketplace set to begin operating in October. Lindsey Tucker, deputy commissioner at the Vermont Department of Health Access, said the money “will mean a smoother experience on Vermont Health Connect,” the state’s name for the new exchange.
“The funding will help us ensure that information is shared between the website and the call center and our in-person assisters, and that we have the technological and operational capacity to meet Vermonters’ needs,” Tucker said Wednesday.
A state law passed in 2012 will require individuals and businesses with 50 or fewer employees to purchase health insurance on the exchange. Policies sold on Vermont Health Connect are subject to heightened regulatory oversight, and the exchange, proponents say, will empower customers by enabling apples-to-apples pricing of competing insurance plans.
Individuals and businesses buying on the exchange will also be eligible for federal financial subsidies, which the Shumlin administration says will bring about $400 million annually in assistance for the 100,000 or so people who will soon be obligated to buy their insurance through Vermont Health Connect.
“The fundamental difference (between the exchange and the current system) is the ability to compare options between health insurance carriers and then get financial assistance to pay for that coverage,” Tucker said of the benefits of the exchange. “What Vermont Health Connect does is allow a Vermonter to shop all in one place and have more transparency into what those products are.”
Critics of the exchange say Vermont’s mandate needlessly corrals small business owners into a restrictive marketplace that curbs their options and may increase costs. And the grant money comes amid a flood of turmoil for the new exchanges on the national stage, where high-profile postponements of key aspects of the Affordable Care Act have spawned questions about whether exchanges will be ready in time.
Most recently, the Obama administration said Friday it will delay for one year verification requirements designed to prevent the receipt of federal health insurance subsidies by households that don’t actually qualify for them.
The elimination of the income verification plan — which would have relied on the integration of IRS data into state-based IT platforms — is symptomatic, critics say, of technological snafus that have accompanied the construction of the new insurance apparatus.
Tucker and other top health care officials in Vermont say this state’s exchange looks poised for a relatively smooth transition, federal technical issues notwithstanding. Asked what the delay in income verification means for Vermont, Tucker said the state is still working to get the answer to that question.
While most states’ exchanges will provide access only to federal subsidies, Vermont’s is one of the few that also contains state-funded assistance for eligible residents. That means someone who underreports household income could secure state aid for which he or she doesn’t qualify.
“We are still looking into it,” Tucker said. “We are conferring with our federal partners to make sure we really understand what the rule says and the implications of it.”
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