House votes to fund review of exchange

MONTPELIER — The Vermont House overwhelmingly voted to fund an independent review of Vermont Health Connect Wednesday, appeasing minority Republicans who have been clamoring for an in depth study to help determine the future of the online insurance marketplace.

By a vote of 136 to 5, the House approved an amendment to an unrelated housing bill that appropriates $400,000 for the review. The House Appropriations Committee included language in the 2017 fiscal year state budget it has already passed calling for the study, but did not include funding — angering some Republicans.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, and House Health Care Committee Chairman Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, promised to find the funding. Johnson told her colleagues Wednesday that the promise was kept.

Rep. Mitzi Johnson

Rep. Mitzi Johnson

“Timing was the driving issue here,” Johnson said on the House floor Wednesday. “I very much appreciate the body’s trust and patience.”

The amendment, which had the support of Democratic leaders, essentially restates the language included in the budget, with some minor exceptions. It now allows for more than one contract to be issued for the study.

“Some of the information requested is for very IT-related coding type things and some is about policy and the Affordable Care Act, so it makes sense that we might need more than one contract,” Johnson said.

The study will be funded by appropriations of $115,000 from the state treasurer’s office and about $109,000 from the Green Mountain Care Board. The remaining funding, about $224,000, would come from the general fund.

The study will be completed by the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office “in collaboration with one or more independent third parties” and is due by Dec. 1. It must assess “the current functionality and long-term sustainability of the technology for Vermont’s Health Benefit Exchange, including a review of the deficiencies in Vermont Health Connect functionality and the integration, connectivity, and business logic of each as they pertain to both the back-end systems and the user interface of Vermont Health Connect.”

The analysis of the exchange will also provide recommendations on how to improve its “function, efficiency, reliability, operations, and customer experience of the technology going forward.” It also requires cost comparisons for completing work on the exchange, using another state’s technology and joining the federal exchange.

Since launching in Oct. 2013, the exchange has never been fully functional. It has struggled to process changes to consumers personal information online, and still does not allow small businesses to enroll directly through the website.

Republican Rep. Doug Gage of Rutland, a strong and persistent proponent of such a study, said it is “a No. 1 priority for many Vermonters.”

Rep. Doug Gage

Rep. Doug Gage

“I think this is a good day for all Vermonters, and I think the body needs to stand behind this and get the job done,” he said.

Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, was one of the five members to vote against funding the study. Her reason was simple.

“I can save this body $400,000. Vermont Health Connect doesn’t work,” she said.

The Shumlin administration has not been supportive of the study, either. Lawrence Miller, Gov. Peter Shumlin’s chief of health care reform, has said previous studies and reviews have already highlighted the exchange’s deficiencies.

“Another study? They can if they want,” Miller wrote in an email Wednesday. “We are focused on fixing it.”

Arlington Democratic Rep. Cynthia Browning said lawmakers will get the information they need to help them determine whether additional resources should be invested in the exchange.

“This important study can help to ensure that Vermonters will have better service from Vermont Health Connect, or a replacement system, sooner rather than later,” she said.

The funding for the study will need to be approved by the Senate before it can be appropriated.

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