MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin and his top health care reform officials said at a news conference that Vermont Health Connect is handling the open enrollment process well.
“We’re two weeks into the annual open enrollment for Vermont Health Connect and I’m pleased to report that it is going very, very well. That’s very different from the last two times that we began open enrollment,” Shumlin said.
The governor said more than 18,000 Vermonters have completed the renewal process and secured their coverage for 2016 on the state’s online health insurance marketplace. There are about 30,000 Vermonters enrolled in health care plans this year on the exchange.
Shumlin said the exchange did not reach the 18,000 enrollment mark until late January during last year’s open enrollment period.
This year’s open enrollment process is operating more smoothly because of technology upgrades to the site, Shumlin said. Last year, workers had to manually process each policy renewal because the site was not equipped with the proper technology to do it in an automated way.
“I’m incredibly grateful to Vermonters for their patience in helping us get to where we are,” Shumlin said. “Clearly, Vermont’s decision to stick with its own website, to pull people together to get to tough things done is paying dividends for Vermonters,” Shumlin said.
Whether the state would stick with Vermont Health Connect was an open question for most of the year. The governor announced several benchmarks for technology upgrades in March that the state would need to meet, otherwise he said he would transition the state to the federal exchange.
At the end of May Shumlin announced that the so-called change-of-circumstance function, which allows consumers to change their personal information online, had been implemented. That allowed the state to tackle a backlog of request changes, including marriage or the birth of a child, that exceeded 10,000 at one point.
Clearing that backlog allowed the state to meet the second benchmark last month, which included implementing the technology to allow for automated renewals. He said that technology “has really worked.” The administration has recommended to lawmakers that the state continue to maintain Vermont Health Connect.
“I’ve got to say, we know there’s more work ahead, but the size of the diminishing press corps at a Vermont Health Connect press conference suggests that the worst of the bad news is behind us,” Shumlin said. “There were many, many people from all political parties who said this would never work, give up, go to the federal exchange. We didn’t. This team persevered and I’m grateful to them for their perseverance.”
The exchange could still face challenges ahead. The state received a waiver from the federal government to allow small businesses to enroll employees directly through the insurance carriers. The site does not currently include the necessary function for small businesses to enroll in health plans.
The direct enrollment process has worked well, Shumlin said, and the state will seek another waiver for 2017 to avoid adding that function. He said the state hopes to continue direct enrollment for small businesses, which are mandated to secure their health coverage through the exchange, indefinitely.
“When we turned it over to the carriers to enroll direct — it works for them, it works for us, it works for everybody. We have said consistently that, ‘Why would you change something that’s working?’” Shumlin said. “Since we’ve all found a smart way to do this, it doesn’t make sense to invest millions of dollars to build a function that’s working very well. We, along with other states, are appealing to CMS, are asking CMS, to give us permission to stick with what we’re doing because there’s no reason for small businesses to go to the exchange.”