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February 07, 2014

Morning Read: Newsweek Skewers Vermont Health Connect (Updated)

MorningreadUpdated below with comment from Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson, who says the Newsweek story is inaccurate and "inflammatory."

How bungled was the rollout of Vermont Health Connect, the state's trouble-plagued health insurance exchange?

In a word, argues veteran reporter and New York Times alum Lynnley Browning, very. But Browning takes a full 3,400 words to make that point in a brutal new story published on Newsweek's website Thursday evening

In it, Browning writes that Vermont state officials "glossed over ominous warning signs and Keystone Cops-like planning" as they worked with contractor CGI Federal to build the federally mandated exchange. 

The toughest part of Browning's story is her description of a demonstration CGI and state officials held in July to showcase the site's progress. While billed as a preview of the site's "live interface with the Federal Data Hub," the presentation was actually a series of "static, premade screens," Browning writes. That, apparently, was not evident to "some state officials" who thought it showed "live' registrations and enrollments by hypothetical consumers."

"People weren't technologically sophisticated enough to understand what was actually going on," Browning quotes an anonymous source — described as "a person familiar with the event who declined to be named" — as saying.

Browning goes on:


CGI Federal managers did their best to pump up their audience. The day before the event, July 25, 2013, [CGI Federal vice president of state solutions Melissa] Boudreault sent an email to two Vermont health officials titled "Proposed Talking Points," saying that "Systems looks [sic] good — it's pretty exciting to actually interface with the HUB" — i.e. — "and Benaissance" — the processor for online payments for premiums that CGI Federal hired as a subcontractor — "and see something in return!"

That email, obtained by Newsweek, appears to contradict two key assertions made by CGI Federal in the PowerPoint slides for the demonstration. Those slides said that the demonstration would show only "payment processing screens" — premade "dummy" pages — and not actual payments being processed for a hypothetical consumer. "No payment integration," one slide said.

Asked what the demonstration actually showed, [Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark] Larson told Newsweek in an email that "it is my recollection that the demonstration involved sending and receiving information with the federal data hub and showed the eligibility determination of a hypothetical customer." He declined to answer additional questions about the demonstration.

The source familiar with the event says "the system was in no way operable" during that demonstration.

To read the full story, click here.


Updated at 6:30 p.m.:

In an interview Friday afternoon, Commissioner Larson said Browning’s story is riddled with inaccuracies and “raises inflammatory speculation, but without any basis in reality.”

“I think that it’s an unfortunate story that… doesn’t provide anything new to the discussion about Vermont Health Connect, except for inflammatory speculation,” he said. “It makes for an interesting story, but I’m not sure it’s an accurate story.”

Larson took particular exception to Browning’s suggestion that CGI misled state officials during the July demonstration. While Browning quoted an anonymous source as saying that “the system was in no way operable” at the time, Larson said he believes the company was, in fact, presenting “a real demonstration of our connection to the federal data hub.”

“It is my understanding from that event that we successfully sent information and got confirmation back from the federal data hub during that demonstration,” he said. “And I’ve never seen any information that contradicted that. Other than individual statements to the contrary, there has been nothing to indicate that that is not true.”

In rebutting the story, Larson alluded several times to “this persistent issue raised by a few people about the connection to the federal data hub.” Asked to whom he was referring, Larson answered Vermonters for Health Care Freedom founder Darcie Johnston and 2012 Republican gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock. Johnston served as Brock’s de facto campaign manager when he challenged Larson’s boss, Gov. Peter Shumlin, two years ago. 

“I think that Darcie Johnston and Randy Brock have been consistent about raising this connection about the federal data hub, and that is a very important component of the entire speculation of the Newsweek article,” Larson said.

Larson also took issue with the manner in which Browning reported her story. He said that as he answered her questions via email over the last week, he had no inkling of her central charge.

“None of the questions gave an opportunity to respond to the accusation of the story,” he said. “There was never a question like, ‘Do you feel like the demonstration on [July] 26th was faked?’ She asked what the demonstration was about. I answered that question and confirmed that the connection to the federal data hub was a real demonstration. But I never had a sense of what story she was putting together.”

Larson said his office was in the process of “preparing a list of what we think are inaccuracies in the story,” which he said he planned to provide Newsweek.

“I don’t know that we’ll highlight each and every [error], but we’ll certainly want to highlight where we think the most substantial errors remain,” he said.

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