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December 12, 2013

Faced with VPR Report, Shumlin Claims He Disclosed Health Exchange Problems in July

DSC06025When he walked into his ceremonial office in the Statehouse Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Peter Shumlin was armed and ready to take on a bunch of pledge drive perpetrators.

Shumlin was there to host a press conference focused on his efforts to fight climate change. But reporters in the room were just waiting to ask him about a Vermont Public Radio story indicating that a state consultant had warned his administration repeatedly since last April that its new health insurance exchange was at risk of failing.

According to documents obtained by VPR's Taylor Dobbs, the problems at Vermont Health Connect were so severe that the contractor, Gartner Consulting, advised state officials on May 22 to "escalate missed deliverable dates or milestones to highest levels within the state and [website developer] CGI."

Here's what reporters wanted to know: Was Shumlin aware that the state's own consultants had issued such dire warnings so long ago? If so, why didn't he disclose the problems to Vermonters? And if he was sufficiently briefed, why did he tell VPR's Bob Kinzel on Nov. 1 that, by Labor Day, "We did not know the magnitude of the challenges we were going to face interacting with the feds, all the other problems we’ve been having."

Evidently anticipating the confrontation, Shumlin brought to Wednesday's press conference a print-out of a July 8 story in the Burlington Free Press. Asked about Dobbs' story, here's what the gov said:

"You know, my team's been transparent with me and I hope I've been transparent with you about the evolution of the challenges that we've faced getting the website up and running. And I don't know what you're referring to exactly about Labor Day, but I can tell you that whenever I learned anything about the website, I shared it with you. And that's what I tend to do. That's how I tend to operate and that's how I'll operate in the future."

Then he pulled out the Free Press story.

"Actually, if you go back to Nancy Remsen's story in the Free Press of July 8, which is long before Labor day, she writes — I'm just doing this because Nancy's here," he said, looking at Remsen.

Then he read this:

Monday Shumlin assured the gathering “that by Oct. 1, Vermont will have a simple website to go to where you can get very good information about affordable health care.”

Then, however, he weakened the promise by saying, “On Oct. 1, we are going to be up and running — we hope.” And his description of the new online marketplace switched from simple, which could be interpreted as easy to use, to “barebones,” which suggests plywood with floors to come later. Shumlin reinforced that second interpretation when he said the bells and whistles would be added in January.

"So, you know," he continued, "I was told in summer that exactly what all the reports that you've seen say, which is that governors like me had an October 1 deadline to meet. It was set by the federal government. We met it. I'm proud that we met it."

Hold the phone!

Putting aside for a moment the notion that he met his goal to launch a functioning site, did he really just say he understood as early as July 8 the severity of the problems Vermont Health Connect faced? That is dramatically different from what he told Kinzel on Vermont Edition last month, as I wrote in a November 6 column:

Precisely what Shumlin knew about the system’s problems, and when he knew it, remains unclear. When his administration disclosed in September that the launch of the website’s payment processing function would be delayed a month — until November 1 — he publicly taunted a reporter for writing a story about it.

“I was amazed that we could make a headline out of that fact, to be honest with you,” the governor said at a press conference that month. “The fact of the matter is, that’s a nothing-burger.”

Asked last Friday by Vermont Public Radio’s Bob Kinzel when he knew his administration had a problem on its hands, the governor bobbed and weaved between two rather contradictory answers.

Noting that he’d warned Vermonters from the start “there’s going to be a lot of bumps in the road,” Shumlin said, “I can’t tell you I’m extraordinarily surprised.”

But asked again whether, by Labor Day, he knew there would be significant issues, the governor said, “No, I didn’t.”

“We did not know the magnitude of the challenges we were going to face interacting with the feds, all the other problems we’ve been having,” he continued. “Because we didn’t have the time to test [the system], we didn’t know what our problems were, to be absolutely honest with you.”

So did he really know by July 8? Really? That was the next question posed to him at Wednesday's presser.

"It's exactly what I think Nancy reported in the press, which is that we understood this summer that we were going to have the website up and running by October 1, but I think I described it as a Chevy Chevette, not a Cadillac. As Nancy said in her story, communicated from my lips, plywood, but the floors wouldn't be finished, that it would be up, functioning and working, and that's exactly what happened."

But had he read that May 22 report? The one advising officials to inform the "highest levels within the state" of the "missed deliverable dates or milestones?"

Kinzel, who attended Wednesday's press conference, put that question to the gov.

"Absolutely not," Shumlin responded. "Governors don't read those reports. I don't have the time in the day to sit there and obviously wade through every single report when we're building one of the most complex websites that health care has ever integrated and delivered. What I do ask my team to do is to tell me whether we're going to make it and what the website will look like when we get there. And I was very transparent about that. I said, 'Listen, this isn't going to have all the bells and whistles, but we're going to have a website that functions, that gives Vermonters the information they need on October 1.' And I want to point out that's exactly what we delivered."

Whoa, whoa whoa.

Let's just stop right there. 

I actually attended the event Remsen wrote about in her July 8 story. It was a health care informational session for small business owners hosted by the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce, held in a dark auditorium at Burlington's Main Street Landing and attended by Shumlin and Congressman Peter Welch.

Like Remsen, I too caught Shumlin's quizzical comment — when he appeared to inadvertently disclose that all wasn't going according to plan at Vermont Health Connect (except, unlike Remsen, I foolishly didn't write about it). It piqued my curiosity, though, so I checked in with a couple of state officials later that week to ask a question all Vermont journalists should have been asking: What did Shumlin mean by "bare-bones?" 

I was assured that it was a slip of the tongue. Everything was fine. Nothing to see here.

Turns out that wasn't the case. 

I will readily admit that I screwed up by not digging further at the time. But I'm not prepared to let Shumlin get away with claiming that he was being "very transparent" when he hinted once — just once — at a sparsely attended forum in July that his administration wouldn't meet its goal to launch a fully functioning website by October 1. 

For the next two months, Shumlin and his administration didn't make a peep about the problems they were clearly facing at Vermont Health Connect. When state officials disclosed in September that the website's payment processing system wouldn't work when Vermont Health Connect was scheduled to go live October 1, Shumlin repeatedly downplayed the problem, referring to it as — yep, you guessed it — a "nothing-burger." 

Not until October 31 did the governor finally have his come-to-Jesus moment, when he made the surprising announcement that he'd delay by three months the mandate for small businesses to sign up.

At Wednesday's press conference, Shumlin was quick to call out what he seemed to think was a reporter exaggerating the truth.

"I'm curious about sort of what you described as the operations of your team," Kinzel began. "Would you expect that if a report comes out on May 22 with lots of red flags saying there's no way this exchange is going to—"

"That isn't what it said," Shumlin interrupted.

"It raised some serious—" Kinzel said.

"It did not say, it never said—" Shumlin interrupted again. "Come on. Let's just stick with the facts. There's nothing in there that said, 'There's no way that this website is going to be up and running,' Bob. It just didn't say that."

"Alright," Kinzel said. "It said there are serious structural problems and they call into question whether or not this exchange is going to be ready October 1."

Said Shumlin, "And what I can tell you is that, with all of the warnings, we had the website up and running on October 1. I'm proud of that and my job continues to be to make improvements to it so it's up and running perfectly for Vermonters. And I have [the] expectation that we're going to get that done."

Stick with the facts?

Here's one fact: Vermont Health Connect was not functioning adequately by October 1. 

And here's another: Shumlin's July slip of the tongue notwithstanding, he absolutely was not "transparent" about the train-wreck awaiting the tens of thousands of Vermonters soon to try to purchase insurance through Vermont Health Connect. To say otherwise is utterly disingenuous.

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