MONTPELIER — Leaders of the Vermont Legislature say that, for now at least, they’ll leave it to the executive branch to rectify flaws in the new health insurance website. But House Speaker Shap Smith said he wants to hear about Gov. Peter Shumlin’s contingency plans sooner rather than later.
Amid growing concern over glitches on the online insurance marketplace launched earlier this month, minority leaders in the House and Senate last week called for a special session of the Legislature if “Vermont Health Connect” isn’t “fully functional” by Dec. 1.
The threat of lapsed coverage for the approximately 100,000 residents being forced to purchase health policies on the exchange next year, Republicans said, demands some form of legislative intervention.
Smith and Senate President John Campbell, however, said Monday that the executive branch is in a better position to resolve the problems than lawmakers in Montpelier.
“What I want to (be) careful about is the Legislature getting in the way of the executive branch trying to improve the exchange,” Smith said.
Campbell and Smith both say they’re “hopeful” the glitches will be resolved by early next month. If they aren’t, though, they say they’re confident that Shumlin and his top advisors will have plans in place to avoid any catastrophic impacts on Vermonters.
“It’s not as if the administration doesn’t know that they’re under a microscope with this one, and knowing the governor as well as I do, he is not somebody who is going to stand by and allow someone not to fulfill their end of this agreement,” Campbell said. “And if they get to a point where they say, ‘OK, we’re not going to be up in time or not ready or this isn’t working ... then I’m sure they’ll make a decision on Plan B.”
While he thinks the site’s functionality is improving steadily, Smith said “It’s hard for me to say whether everything will be online and ready to go.”
“I’m not dealing with it on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis,” Smith said. “I’m hopeful that it will proceed as the governor suggests, but I think that we have to be ready for any contingency.”
Shumlin said last week that he is working on contingency plans, but that it’s too early to begin discussing them publicly. Smith said he’ll ask for a briefing on those plans soon. The same law that requires individuals and businesses with fewer than 50 employees to purchase coverage from the exchange also contains an escape clause that gives the Department of Financial Regulation the authority to unilaterally suspend that requirement, if conditions merit.
“We have talked to (the administration) about having a contingency plan in place, and my view is that I’d like to know what that plan is in the next week or so,” Smith said.
Smith said he isn’t taking the prospect of legislative action off the table. But he said he can’t envision a scenario that would benefit from it, especially given the paper system backup that allows frustrated insurance consumers to bypass the Vermont Health Connect website altogether.
“If it looks like there needs to be some kind of legislative action or legislative prodding to ensure people will be able to get the insurance they need, then we’ll take that action,” Smith said. “But if people are still able to get insurance, I’m not sure whether it makes sense for the Legislature to come back and just muddy the waters.”
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