Shumlin: Obamacare critical for Vermonters

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin is defending Obamacare and the state’s health care exchange as President-elect Donald Trump signals his intention to decimate them, a move the governor says will be an “extraordinary disaster for Vermonters.”

Shumlin, who is nearing the final month of his governorship, used a Montpelier news conference Tuesday to defend the federal and state health care reform efforts during his six years in office. He said Vermont Health Connect, the state’s online health insurance marketplace created under the federal Affordable Care Act, is finally working as anticipated when it launched in Oct. 2013.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks about the progress of Vermont Health Connect, the state's online health insurance marketplace, and the importance of the federal Affordable Care Act to Vermont. (VPB/Neal P. Goswami)

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks at a news conference about the progress of Vermont Health Connect, the state’s online health insurance marketplace, and the importance of the federal Affordable Care Act to Vermont. (VPB/Neal P. Goswami)

“I personally believe that Vermont now has among the best functioning state exchanges in America and probably the best functioning state exchanges in America,” the governor said.

The open enrollment process, which has struggled in past years as technology faltered, is “proceeding smoothly,” Shumlin argued. He said more than 20,000 Vermont households have renewed their covered for 2017 through the website, and there are about 1,000 new applicants so far, with more than a month to go before the open enrollment period ends.

The technology that had been a hurdle for the state in years past is also working as expected, Shumlin said. Data collected by the state and transferred to insurance carriers and the federal government is flowing smoothly, with very few hiccups. Shumlin said the state has sent about 21,000 cases to the carriers and just 51 problems have emerged, or about 0.25 percent.

Additionally, the change-of-circumstance requests that once had a backlog of more than 10,000 are being resolved quickly. Shumlin, flanked by his administration’s top health care reform officials, said 95 percent of change requests are being made in a timely manner, and 80 percent are now made the same day as requested. Finally, 89 percent of customer service calls are now being answered within 24 seconds — a significant improvement.

“The vast majority of folks no longer sit on hold. When they get a customer service rep they get what they need,” the governor said. “The facts on the ground at Vermont Health Connect speak to the success of the exchange that we know today.”

Despite its recent successes, Vermont Health Connect and Obamacare may be doomed under the Trump administration. The president-elect promised during the campaign that he would eliminate Obamacare. And his selection of Georgia Republican Rep. Tom Price to serve as secretary of the Agency of Health and Human Services could signal Trump’s willingness to follow through on his campaign process.

Price has been a vocal opponent of Obamacare from the outset. As HHS secretary, he could play a vital role in helping Trump dismantle the reforms many Vermonters rely on. Shumlin said that could have devastating impact.

“Before Obamacare, 43,000 Vermonters lacked insurance coverage,” he said. “That number has been cut in half … which has reduced the state’s insured rate to 2.7 percent.”

“We forget that’s 25,000 Vermonters who don’t get up in the morning worried that if they get sick they have to make horrid choices,” the governor added. “This is a huge concern to Vermonters who have to live without coverage.”

Shumlin said he would urge Republican Gov.-elect Phil Scott, who will take office in early January, to work with governors around the country to form a coalition that can fight to save the Affordable Care Act.

“Obamacare matters to Vermont, it matters to all of our communities. We’ve got to fight for it together. A repeal of Obamacare would not just be a disaster for the over 22 million Americans who now can afford insurance, it would be a huge disaster for this small, rural state,” Shumlin said.

If Trump were to eliminate the ACA, which would cut additional federal funding for Medicaid and eliminate federal subsidies for health insurance plans, it could cost the state an additional $100 million annual to maintain coverage for Vermonters who have benefited from the law.

“Vermonters just don’t have the money in their pockets. The federal subsidies have made it possible for Vermonters to afford health insurance who couldn’t afford it before,” Shumlin said.

Despite those dire warnings, Darcie Johnston, head of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom and a persistent critic of the ACA and Vermont Health Connect, said she continues to favor the elimination of the federal law.

“I think there are better options out there for patients, for consumers, that are being restricted. Many, yes, have health insurance, but they don’t have health insurance they can afford to use to get health care,” she said.

She also acknowledges that the state’s exchange appears to finally be working, but says she wants the state to eliminate the mandate that requires Vermonters to purchase health insurance through the exchange.

“Great. Four years later. Great,” she said. “I do think it’s working. It’s not working for everybody.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

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