MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin, facing more questions from reporters about the poor operation of Vermont Heath Connect, let loose his frustration Tuesday with a joke alluding to suicide during a news conference.
The governor last month promised that a key function missing from the state’s online health insurance marketplace would be in place by May 31. But with the self-imposed deadline fast approaching, the governor has faced continuing questions about what happens if the deadline is missed.
Last month, Shumlin promised that the so-called change of circumstance function, the ability for customers to change their personal information in their online accounts, would function by May 31. An automated renewal process was promised by the end of October. Missing either those deadlines would result in the administration beginning the process of switching to an exchange operated by the federal government, or perhaps a state-federal hybrid.
But the governor has seemed to back away from the first deadline, saying his administration would determine how to move forward in October — well after the initial May 31 deadline. House Speaker Shap Smith said last week that he wants to begin the process of moving away from Vermont Health Connect in June if change of circumstance is not working.
Asked several times what he intends to do on June 1 if change of circumstance is not working, the governor offered an off-color response.
“I’m going to find a high building,” Shumlin said. “I’m at the end of my rope. I don’t think the fifth floor [of the Pavillion Building where his office is located] is high enough.”
The governor’s office later issued a statement from the governor apologizing for the remark.
“Using that saying was an inappropriate way to express my frustration. It was insensitive and I apologize,” the governor said in the statement.
The governor’s remarks followed an emotional debate on the House floor last week over gun legislation in which mental illness and suicide were discussed.
Earlier in his exchange with reporters on Tuesday, Shumlin cautioned against creating conflicts over the deadline.
“I check on this with my team every day, sometimes three times a day. We all really want this to succeed. But, let’s focus on what we’re doing here. We’re on track. We’re optimistic that we’re on track. Why are we trying to create a fight over something that we may well never have to fight about,” he said.
“Let’s not create conflicts that we don’t need to have. I’m focused on trying to get the job done and I know the Legislature joins me in wanting the exchange to work,” Shumlin added.
Asked why he created the May 31 deadline in the first place, Shumlin said he wanted to ensure the public that his administration would seek other options if those lacking functions could not be completed.
“Because I feel like we’re all fed up. We’re all frustrated. Listen, this has been the most frustrating and disappointing experience of my public life. I’ve told you a million times that Vermonters and I are fed up. It’s incredibly frustrating,” he said.