MONTPELIER — House Speaker Shap Smith says he expects the state to move away from Vermont Health Connect if a key automated function is not in place by the end of May as promised by the Shumlin administration.
Smith’s comments, made Friday on WDEV’s The Mark Johnson Show, are in contrast to how the administration views the self-imposed deadline of May 31 to incorporate the so-called change of circumstance function into the state’s troubled online health insurance marketplace.
“If we don’t actually meet the May 31 deadline I just don’t see how we can go back to Vermonters and suggest that they should continue to have confidence in us to make the system work. So, I think that at that point in time we have to basically reassess where we’re going and my strong believe is that we need to explore other options,” Smith said.
Gov. Peter Shumlin laid out a new time line for upgrading the exchange last month. He promised that change of circumstance, the ability for customers to make changes to their personal information online, would be working by the end of May. He also said that an automated system allowing costumers to sign up for health plans online would be in place by the fall.
At the time, Shumlin said if either of the new deadlines are missed the state would begin the process of moving to the exchange run by the federal government, or perhaps a state-federal hybrid model.
A performance audit released Thursday by Auditor Doug Hoffer questioned the state’s ability to meet those deadlines. Smith said he was troubled by the report.
“It caused some real concerns for me whether or not we’re going to be able to meet the May 31 deadline, which was set out by the administration. It calls into question, for me, whether the design of the system and the implementation date on May 31 is one that’s achievable,” he said.
Shumlin and Lawrence Miller, his chief of health care reform, now say that the administration will continue working on the change of circumstance functionality through the fall if it is not ready by May 31. They’ll determine whether to continue with Vermont Health Connect in the fall.
“If those aren’t working by November, by the end of November, we’re done. We’re going to either the federal exchange, which is a terrible choice for us, … or to some other hybrid,” Shumlin said in an interview Friday. “We believe that we will have change of circumstance working on May 31.”
Smith said he is not content to wait until the fall to determine how the state will proceed, however.
“The reality is that many Vermonters already have lost confidence in the exchange and I think that if we don’t meet another deadline it’s going to be almost impossible to get any confidence back at all,” he said.
Smith said Friday he is considering ways to force the administration to act if the May deadline is missed. It could involve having lawmakers return over the summer, although Smith acknowledged that only the governor has the authority to call them back into session.
“I could ask, and I think that we ought to be in a place where we have a structure set out that we can move in a different direction. Whether it needs to have the Legislature come back or there’s some other structure to do that, I think, is a matter for discussion,” Smith said.
Other options include using the Legislature’s Health Oversight Committee, Joint Fiscal Committee or Emergency Board to set in place a process to “have decision points to move to a different exchange.”
Shumlin on Friday maintained that the future of Vermont Health Connect will be determined by his administration this fall.
“What I laid out a month ago was that change of circumstance has to be working and have to have the bugs fixed to sign up folks in November and that’s when we’ll make that decision,” Shumlin said. “I think the speaker and I agree, this thing’s got to work.”
The governor declined to discuss the options laid out by Smith.
“We’re focused on getting it done,” Shumlin said. “I’m not going to sit here and talk about what happens if it doesn’t work. We’ve said what’s going to happen if it doesn’t work. If the two functions don’t work we’re moving on.”