MONTPELIER — State officials say the state’s online health insurance marketplace mandated under the federal health care reform law that launched on the first of the month is continuously improving even as some technology flaws persist.
Three weeks into the online exchanges, President Barack Obama, surrounded by beneficiaries of the Affordable Care Act, took to the Rose Garden on Monday to lament issues surrounding the insurance marketplaces and pledging prompt fixes.
The federal government built the Web portal that sells insurance plans in 36 states. Vermont is one of the 14 states that opted to design its own marketplace.
The federal exchange site has had a bumpy introduction and the state-specific sites, including Vermont Health Connect, have not fared much better. Load times are slow, the registration process often becomes stuck or error messages are received by users.
Obama acknowledged the flaws in the federal site Monday but said the law, known as Obamacare, is “not just a website.” The crux of his signature achievement as president is working as designed, the president said, and the technical problems will be resolved.
“The problem has been that the website that’s supposed to make it easy to apply for and purchase the insurance is not working the way it should for everybody. And there’s no sugarcoating it. The website has been too slow, people have been getting stuck during the application process. And I think it’s fair to say that nobody is more frustrated by that than I am,” Obama said.
The federal site and the Vermont site share a developer — CGI Systems and Technologies. Vermont is paying the company more than $80 million for its services. Gov. Peter Shumlin said Monday that he shares the president’s frustration with the struggling exchange.
“I think I’ve made my frustration with what doesn’t work very clear. It’s frustrating. When we pay for a product I expect it to work. I’ve made that very clear to the CEO of CGI,” he said. “I’m going to hold their feet to the fire until it’s perfect.”
Still, despite sharing a main developer, Shumlin said Vermont Health Connect has had fewer issues than the federal site and Vermonters are signing up for insurance plans.
“I am grateful that we chose to do it the Vermont way by building our own because Vermont Health Connect has not experienced the degree of problems seen by the federal site. Ours happens to be one of the most functional sites in the country,” Shumlin said. “Having said that, it has had the problems that you would expect from a technology launch as ambitious and new as this one.”
The online insurance marketplace is “a revolutionary, new way of purchasing health insurance,” Shumlin said, and Vermont’s exchange has glitches that must be addressed. State officials, including Shumlin, are pushing CGI to live up to the terms of the contract.
“I’ve been on the phone working very closely with the CEO of CGI to get their best teams in place to help fix our glitches and they’ve been delivering. So, every day our site is better than it was the day before and you’re going to continue to see improvements in the weeks and months going forward,” Shumlin said. “CGI knows that they’ve promised us a product that’s supposed to work and I’m going to hold their feet to the fire until it works.”
As of Monday, officials at the Department of Vermont Health Access said more than 80,000 people have visited the site and more than 7,000 accounts have been created. But only 950 people have completed the process of selecting an insurance plan, and nobody can pay for the plans online yet.
The exchanges, according to a mandate in the law, launched Oct. 1. State officials have said people who register on Vermont Health Connect and select an insurance plan can begin paying online for the coverage Nov. 1.
That may not happen by Nov. 1, though. Shumlin said Monday that he has told both CGI and DVHA Commissioner Mark Larson to be sure everything is working properly before launching that part of the site.
“This is what I’ve said to them and to Mark, I said, ‘Listen, test it before you put it up on Nov. 1 and if it means that you guys spend an extra few days getting it right, get it right,”’ Shumlin said.
Meeting the self-imposed Nov. 1 deadline has not been a main focus, according to Shumlin.
“What we’ve been focusing on is the fact that the website itself doesn’t always get the results that we expect it to get, forgetting about making payments. In other words, we knew that that piece wasn’t going to work. We’re trying to get the pieces that we promised would work to work,” he said.
People working to help Vermonters sign up on the exchange say Vermont Health Connect has more than a few glitches. The task of enrolling the 100,000 or so Vermonters required to obtain coverage on the exchange beginning on Jan. 1 seems a tall task, said Vermont Chamber of Commerce President Betsy Bishop.
“I think our biggest concerns right now for the entire Vermont Health Connect is the amount of people that we need to sign up as a state, have them pay and get their insurance cards back by Jan. 1. That’s a pretty large task ahead of us and at the rate we’re going, it seems like the task is going to be even more difficult with each passing day,” Bishop said.
It’s not an impossible task, though, she said. “I’m not sure that I would label it that quite yet,” Bishop said.
The Chamber is one of many groups designated by the state to have “navigators,” people across the state helping Vermonters enroll. The navigators are experiencing all kinds of issues, Bishop said.
Employers are required to provide a list of employees for the system, which then generates a letter to the employer with a special code that allows the employer to access necessary information for enrolling. Bishop said those letters are not being triggered.
“We’ve got to have that matching happen. That’s not automatically happening. That has to be manually done by the Vermont Health Connect staff. That’s is where a big part of the slow-down is coming,” she said. “Employees cannot yet select a plan. If they can get in with their code they can look around but they cannot select a plan. That part of the system has not worked yet.”
Darcie Johnston, head of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom and the state’s most vocal critic of Obamacare, issued a release Monday calling on Shumlin to delay Vermont Health Connect.
Johnston said state law allows the governor to issue a “waiver” that would allow Vermonters to keep the insurance plan they have now beyond the end of the year when Vermont Health Connect plans launch. She also “strongly suggested” that Shumlin fire CGI “and bring the best minds in Vermont to the table to figure out this mess.”
Dumping CGI now is unlikely. However, Shumlin said Monday that the state has not further amended the contract with CGI and has retained its right to seek millions of dollars in compensation from CGI for deadlines it has missed.
“My first job is to work with CGI to get the system working for Vermonters. We have not waived any of our rights to be reimbursed for areas where promises were not kept,” he said. “We are working 24-7 to get the website working to our satisfaction. It is taking everybody’s concentration, effort and focus. I’ve told my team to get it working before we worry about getting reimbursed for any portion of the contracts as long as we haven’t waived the right to do that, which we have not.”
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