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October 24, 2013

Shumlin Defends Implementation of Health Insurance Exchange, Sees Signs of Progress

DSC05971In his feistiest exchange with the press in months, Gov. Peter Shumlin on Thursday sought to reassure Vermonters that his administration is doing everything possible to remedy problems plaguing its new online health insurance portal.

But even as he expressed confidence that Vermont Health Connect's performance is improving every day, Shumlin avoided making specific promises about when the system would be fully functional.

"The bottom line is that I can't stand here truthfully, look you in the eye, and say, 'Hey, we've got this figured out right on a tight schedule to the moment, as we would with a road project,'" the governor told reporters at a press conference in the Pavilion State Office Building. "We're doing everything in our power to improve the structure that we have in place. I'm confident that we're going to get there. If we don't, I can assure you that we will have a path that will get us where we need to go."

Since its Oct. 1 launch, the online insurance marketplace has suffered performance problems that have prompted some businesses and individuals to resort to applying for new policies using paper applications. An element of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, the federally financed and state-run exchange is intended to serve as a clearinghouse through which as many as 100,000 Vermonters may eventually purchase coverage.

Despite the problems, Shumlin brushed aside a recommendation Republican legislative leaders made Wednesday that if the web portal is not fully functional by Dec. 1, Shumlin should delay the Jan. 1 mandate requiring many Vermonters to purchase insurance through the exchange.

"I hope it's gonna be done by Dec. 1," he said. "Today it is working better than it was two days ago. And I would hope that we can do it more quickly than that."

At the same time, Shumlin continued to walk back a previous pledge he made to fix the system's broken payment system by Nov. 1. In the weeks prior to Vermont Health Connect's launch, Shumlin characterized that particular delay as a "nothing-burger," because, he said, nobody would want to pay for an insurance plan three months before it takes effect. Earlier this week, the governor began distancing himself from his own self-imposed deadline.

"We are working and testing the pay function right now. And again, because in technology we don't know exactly what is going to work as we build it, we can't guarantee you a date," Shumlin said Thursday. "I can tell you that we're confident that we'll be close. And what we will not do, because we're not under a federal mandate to do it, is put the payment function up until it works. We won't be far off from Nov. 1 — one side of it or the other."

Asked whether Vermont Health Connect would be glitch-free by the start of next year, Shumlin gamely replied, "If I could answer that question, I wouldn't be governor. I would be God."

"So is that a yes or a no?" WCAX's Kristin Carlson queried.

"I am not God," Shumlin clarified. "That I'm sure of!"

While Shumlin defended the bidding process by which his administration awarded contracts to build and advertise Vermont Health Connect, he repeatedly said the state would get results from the main contractor, Canadian conglomerate CGI.

"I not only empathize with the frustration [of the system's users], but I can tell you that my job as governor is to ensure that when we pay taxpayer money for a service to vendors to provide that service, I'm going to hold their feet to the fire until we get it," he said. "So I have been speaking with, consistently, the CEO of the company that we've contracted with... to make very clear that we expect to get what we paid for — and I'm confident that we will."

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