Another exchange deadline missed, but state extends timeframe

MONTPELIER — A function missing from Vermont’s online health insurance marketplace will not be added by today’s deadline, but state officials say they are giving the contractor additional time to complete the project before they look to impose penalties.

Under an amended contract signed in early April, tech giant CGI was required to deliver “change of circumstance” functionality by today. The upgrade would allow thousands of Vermonters to edit their personal information online if mistakes are made during registration, or if they experience a life-changing event such as marriage.

But progress remains slow, and the function remains in testing, according to Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access.

“We will not have the change of circumstances functionality tomorrow,” Larson said Tuesday.

Mark Larson

Mark Larson

Vermont Health Connect, the state’s online health insurance marketplace required under the federal Affordable Care Act, launched in October with serious deficiencies. Users are still unable to edit their information, and small businesses must enroll directly with the state’s insurers because the website is not functional for them.

The ability for individuals to make online payments for premiums was added in early March. Prior to that, payment had to be mailed in by check.

Larson said the “change of circumstance” upgrade has been postponed, likely until June, because it is not ready to be integrated into the website.

“We’re not going to implement any new functionality until we’re sure that it’s ready and fully tested,” he said.

“After careful consideration and reflecting on what we’ve learned over the past few months … I expect that we will agree to push the expected delivery date for change of circumstance to June 8,” Larson said. “I think that is a more realistic time frame for the functionality to be completed the way we would expect to.”

The state is allowing the use of a provision in the $84 million contract with CGI that allows for a change in deadlines if both parties agree. Larson said he expects the formal agreement to be signed today, setting the new June 8 deadline.

The state, by agreeing to a change in date, is also pushing back when it can begin to collect on the financial penalties it is allowed to assess for late delivery, according to the contract. Under the contract, the state can take a 12.5 percent discount on the cost of the function.

CGI can “earn” back some pay, however, depending on how quickly it completes each task after a missed deadline. Completion within seven days will allow for a 50 percent reduction in the penalty. Completion within 14 days will allow CGI to earn back 25 percent of the penalty, and completion within 28 days will allow for a 10 percent reduction in the penalty.

Those penalties will not be available until after June 8, if the agreement between the state and CGI is signed.

“By agreeing to a change in date we agree that those penalties will be applied if the delivery is not accomplished on June 8,” Larson said. “The penalties are all triggered by the agreed-upon date.”

Larson said June 8, “is more realistic” for upgrading the site and adding change of circumstance.

“Vermonters have the appropriate expectation that that function be available to them, and I know that Vermonters are frustrated by that not being there today,” he said. “I share that frustration and have a responsibility (to develop) a plan that is most likely to be successful and I think the change is consistent with that.”

Larson said the state will look to assess financial penalties if the new date is not met.

“I believe that the plan to achieve success is more likely with the change of date,” he said. “We aren’t eliminating any of our ability to impose financial penalties. We reserve all of those rights in the contract.”

The amended contract, signed in April, also requires CGI to deliver the small business enrollment function by July 2. No changes have been made to that deadline.

“We are still evaluating that. We’ve made no change there, though,” Larson said. “That date still stands, right now.”

A spokeswoman for CGI did not respond to phone and email messages Tuesday.

Scheuermann bows out of gov race

MONTPELIER — With the Legislature adjourned, the focus in Vermont politics now shifts to the election in November and the potential races ahead.

Several people are weighing a run to unseat Gov. Peter Shumlin, including a former Wall Street executive and the president of a well-known travel company. One lawmaker, Republican Rep. Heidi Scheuermann of Stowe, announced Tuesday she has decided against a bid of her own.

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann

“After a great deal of thought and consideration over the last two months, I have decided that I will not run for Vermont Governor this year,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “Given the incredible support and encouragement I have received from Vermonters all over the state, this decision was a very difficult one, but it is simply not the right time for me.”

Instead, Scheuermann said she will seek re-election to her House seat.

“I will continue my vigorous advocacy for a long-term strategy for economic growth, a comprehensive reform of our education and education funding system, and health care reform that works for all Vermonters,” she wrote.

House passes minimum wage bill, on way to gov’s desk

MONTPELIER — The Senate version of a minimum wage bill was passed by the House Friday night and will become law after it emerged as the only feasible option for boosting the incomes of the state’s lowest-paid workers.

Republicans agreed to suspend House rules Friday evening, allowing the bill to be taken up a day ahead of schedule. The plan — approved by the Senate on Monday — was passed by the House on a 132-3 vote and is now on its way to the governor’s desk after a bumpy few days.

The legislation will raise the minimum hourly rate to $10.50 in 2018. In the interim, the minimum wage will go from its current $8.73 per hour to $9.15 on Jan. 1. The wage would then go to $9.60, $10 and $10.50, respectively, over the next three years. Annual cost-of-living increases based on the consumer price index will occur each year thereafter.

The Senate version was reluctantly adopted by some Democrats and Progressives after all other options to raise the wage sooner were exhausted.

“We know we can do better. The House voted for what we thought was a better bill, but after a long process, this is the bill that we have. But, it accomplishes what we need to do,” Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, said on the House floor Friday night, acknowledging the disappointment with the bill by some members.

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Scenes from the race to end the session

Technicality stalls minimum wage debate

MONTPELIER — A misprint in the House calendar discovered late Thursday night doomed consideration of a minimum wage bill until Saturday, just as Democratic leaders ramped up efforts to corral an unruly caucus.

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, made a point of order around 10:30 p.m., hours after debate had begun. But House Speaker Shap Smith said minority Republicans were correct, and ruled that action must be postponed and placed back on the calendar, making Saturday the next day the bill will see action.

Democratic leaders were looking to pass a scaled back minimum wage bill from the more ambitious plan they previously passed. The new plan, hashed out following a day-long back-and-forth between the House, Senate and governor’s office, is much closer to one favored by Gov. Peter Shumlin. Continue reading

GMO labeling bill signed into law

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo  A large crowd of legislators and supporters cheers after Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill into law on Thursday outside the State House that requires the labelling of GMO ingredients in food. It is the first law of its kind in the nation to pass without so-called trigger clauses.

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
A large crowd of legislators and supporters cheers after Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill into law on Thursday outside the State House that requires the labelling of GMO ingredients in food. It is the first law of its kind in the nation to pass without so-called trigger clauses.

By JOSH O’GORMAN
MONTPELIER – Before a cheering crowd of hundreds, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a first-in-the-nation food labeling bill into law, even as food producers continue to voice their opposition.
The front lawn of the Statehouse was filled with families and consumer advocates as Shumlin signed a law that will require the packaging of some foods to indicate if they contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
“We will sign the first bill in America, joining 60 other countries, where Vermonters will have the right to know what’s in their food,” said Shumlin, who compared the law to Vermont begin the first state to abolish slavery and allow civil unions. Continue reading

Walz tapped for House seat

MONTPELIER – Tommy Walz, a former educator from Barre City, has been tapped by Gov. Peter Shumlin to replace former Rep. Tess Taylor.

Walz was picked from a list of three candidates submitted to Gov. Shumlin by the Barre City Democratic Committee.

“I am pleased to appoint Tommy Walz to fill this opening,” Shumlin said in a statement. “His long-term commitment and service to the Barre community will make him an excellent voice for his constituents in the Vermont House of Representatives.”

Walz first moved to Barre in 1967 to teach English and German at Spaulding High School. He and his wife Leslie moved several times, including a stint living and working in Germany. Walz came returned to Vermont in 1979 where he again taught English at Spaulding High School before working in computer sales and data consulting.

“I am proud to be joining the Barre contingent in the Vermont House of Representatives,” Walz said in a statement. “Barre has given us much and Leslie and I have had the chance to return some small measure through volunteering and serving on local school boards. Representing the people of Barre City in the Vermont House provides yet one more way for me to serve my community.”

Walz currently serves on the Barre Supervisory Union Board and the Spaulding High School Board.

Taylor resigned from her seat in the House last month to serve as the executive director of Vermont’s Coalition for Universal Reform. The newly formed group is planning a push for Shumlin’s universal, publicly-financed health care plan.

Shumlin’s office said Walz will be sworn in “promptly.”

State, CGI sign amended contract with new timeline and penalties

MONTPELIER — State officials and the contractor building Vermont Health Connect have signed off on a new agreement that sets a new schedule for launching missing functions and includes additional financial penalties for missed deadlines.

The amended contract with tech giant CGI was signed Tuesday by Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson and Gregg Mossburg, a senior vice president with the firm.

Under the amended contract, CGI must deliver “change of circumstance” functionality by May 21. By July 2, small business functionality must be operational. Failure to deliver by those dates will result in new financial penalties on top of the $5 million in “liquidated damages” the state has already claimed for CGI’s incomplete work.

“We really were trying to define an achievable road map and pair it with payment provisions and financial accountability so that we have an achievable plan and one that preserves for the state accountability for the success of that plan,” Larson said Thursday.

Lawrence Miller

Lawrence Miller

Vermont Health Connect, the state’s online health insurance marketplace required under the federal Affordable Care Act, launched last October with serious deficiencies. Users are still unable to edit their information, and small businesses must enroll directly with the state’s two insurers because the website is not functional for them. The ability to make online payments for premiums was finally added in early March.

Secretary of Commerce Lawrence Miller, tapped by Gov. Peter Shumlin in January to assist the beleaguered exchange team, said the previous contract with CGI “contemplated getting through development by October and everything being neat and clean.”

But late last year, after reviewing the state’s options, Miller and others began negotiating with CGI on a new contract that would help complete the project. Despite calls by Republicans to dump CGI, state officials determined that developing a new path with CGI was the best solution.

“There was this sort of fundamental question after December of do we finish the project with CGI or do we find somebody else. It was really clear, talking to other organizations and folks who have done this before, that the disruption of change, trying to change contractors, greatly exceeded the risk of negotiating a revised agreement and a revised path to done,” Miller said.

Massachusetts and the federal government have opted to drop CGI in favor of other tech firms. Other states are working with their contractors to redefine tasks and goals.

“When I’ve talked to people around the country, they are doing a combination of amendments to contracts and replacement of vendors. Everybody’s taking a slightly different approach. We did not consult with other states on the specifics of this,” Miller said.

Both sides “were pretty well firm on what was important to them,” according to Miller, but main components of the negotiated amendment “were not in substantial conflict.”

“Both parties wanted to finish the work and both parties recognized that this would be done in stages now,” he said.

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Mistakes may have contributed to 2-year-old’s death, committee finds

By Neal Goswami
MONTPELIER — A special Senate panel will seek subpoena power to obtain records and documents from the Rutland County Criminal Court and the Department of Children and Families in the course of its review of the Dezirae Sheldon case.
The Senate Review Panel on Child Protection was created following the February death of the 2-year-old Sheldon from severe head trauma, allegedly at the hands of her stepfather, Dennis Duby. Members said Wednesday they want to know if mistakes made more than five years ago — and revealed in recent days — could have contributed to Sheldon remaining in an unsafe environment.
Committee co-chairs Sens. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and Claire Ayer, D-Addison, learned over the weekend of discrepancies in a previous criminal case involving Sheldon’s mother, 31-year-old Sandra Eastman. Sears, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it is possible that the errors may have influenced decisions made by DCF that allowed Eastman to keep custody of Sheldon despite convictions. Continue reading

Small biz direct enrollment to last through 2015 open enrollment

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration told lawmakers Tuesday that small businesses will have the option to continue directly enrolling in health care insurance plans during the next open enrollment period slated for this fall.

Director of Health Care Reform Robin Lunge delivered the update to the Senate Finance Committee early Tuesday afternoon. Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access, delivered the same message later to the House Health Care Committee.

“The good news that I have is that the feds have approved the ability for us to continue with direct enrollment moving forward through the 2015 open enrollment period for 2016 plans and our intention is to allow this as an additional option,” Lunge said.

Direct enrollment with the state’s two insurance carriers was a contingency plan offered by Gov. Peter Shumlin when the state’s federally mandated online insurance marketplace, Vermont Health Connect, failed to function properly at launch last October. Small businesses were able to bypass the exchange and deal directly with insurers.

Employees of small businesses with 50 or fewer employees are required by state statute to obtain health insurance through Vermont Health Connect. But the website still does not allow for online enrollment. Administration officials say they expect it to be working when the 2015 open enrollment period begins in October.

Larson said the direct enrollment option is in no way an indication that the exchange website will still not be fully functional by October. Rather, it provides Vermonters with additional ways to enroll in qualified health insurance plans, he said.

However, direct enrollment with insurance carriers provides a limited choice of insurance plans. Individual using the website can choose from 18 plans between the two carriers. Small business employees can only choose from four plans.

Larson said the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare, which has approved the state’s request to continue direct enrollment, “is mindful of employee choice.” Larson said conversations with insurers are taking place to try and expand options.

“They are very interested in making sure that employees have the greatest ability to have choice in their plans as possible. That will be one of the conversations that we have, is how to do direct enrollment so employees continue to have access to as many plans as possible through their employer.”

House Health Care Committee Chairman Rep. Michael Fisher, following Larson’s appearance, said he is happy the direct enrollment option will be preserved for the next enrollment period.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that this piece of IT structure or that piece will be ready in time, and so I don’t have any confidence that anything is going to work until I see it working,” he said. “I think Vermonters are comfortable going through the carriers directly and I’m pleased that the administration moved to a place that is supporting that. So, I think that’s a good thing.”

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Online payments go live on state exchange

MONTPELIER — The state’s online health insurance marketplace is now accepting payment online for premiums, the Shumlin administration announced Monday.

Individual Vermonters enrolling in insurance plans on Vermont Health Connect, the online marketplace mandated under the federal Affordable Care Act, can now pay for monthly premiums online, according to the Department of Vermont Health Access. The site underwent an upgrade over the weekend, officials said.

Small businesses will continue to enroll directly through the state’s two insurers — Blue Cross Blue Shield and MVP Health Care.

The payment system will now allow Vermonters to pay premiums with a debit card, credit card or direct deposit from a bank account in addition to paper checks.

“This is great news for all Vermonters using VHC to enroll in health plans. Paying online provides convenience for Vermonters, and we’re pleased this functionality is now up and running. Our focus over the next month is to continue to enroll Vermonters through VHC,” DVHA Commissioner Mark Larson said in a statement.

Administration officials said additional system upgrades over the weekend will allow VHC staff to better process applications and provide a better overall experience for users.

The addition of online payments comes months after the site launched last Oct. 1. At launch, the site experienced significant technological failures that prevented most users from selecting plans. Small businesses can still not enroll on the site and must do so directly through insurers.

GOP leaders seek federal investigation into exchange

MONTPELIER — Republican leaders in the Legislature are seeking a federal investigation into Vermont Health Connect based on an anonymous tip that a state contractor duped state officials last year.

House Minority Leader Don Turner of Milton and Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning of Caledonia County sent a letter Wednesday to Tristram Coffin, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont, requesting the investigation. The request is based on “whistleblower allegations alleging a fraudulent software demonstration on July 26, 2013 by CGI Technologies & Solutions.”

Newsweek published an article earlier this month in which an anonymous source said a demonstration by CGI last July designed to show connectivity with the state’s online insurance marketplace with a federal data hub was faked.

The exchange site, for which CGI has an $84 million contract to build, is still not fully functional, the GOP leaders wrote in their letter.

“We believe the unexplained and extensive delay, coupled with evidence suggesting the company in charge of designing the system may have duped Vermont officials into incorrectly thinking that the software system was working and on schedule, constitutes sufficient legal and factual predicate to begin a federal investigation,” they wrote. “If true, such a fraud prevented state officials from performing proper contractual oversight, prevented corrective measures, and helped CGI retain its multi-million dollar contract with the state.”

Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access, has maintained that the July demonstration did feature a live connection with the federal data hub.

Linda F. Odorisio, vice president of communications for CGI, said in an emailed statement Wednesday evening that the demonstration did connect the state site to the federal hub.

“CGI confirms that the demonstration conducted on July 26, 2013 included a live interface to the Federal Data Services Hub, with the real time sending and receiving of data,” she wrote.

Shumlin sticking with CGI, at least for now

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin said Friday that Vermont will stick with its main health exchange website contractor, despite reports that the federal government is set to replace the same contractor working on the federal government’s troubled site.

The Washington Post reported Friday that the Obama administration will replace CGI after a disappointing rollout of the federal exchange site, HealthCare.gov, which serves 36 states. According to the Post, Accenture will sign a contract with the federal government to continue work on the site.

The Shumlin administration also enlisted CGI to create the state’s exchange known as Vermont Health Connect. Vermont is one of 14 states to design its own site, and one of six individual states to chose CGI as its contractor.

The federal site experienced failures immediately upon its Oct. 1 launch date. The Post reported Friday that CGI’s current federal contract expires in late February, and a new one-year deal worth about $90 million will be signed with Accenture.

VHCVermont Health Connect experienced similar technological glitches. Most users were unable to register and select health insurance plans on the federally mandated exchange after it went live. Access was improved after the first several weeks for individuals, but small businesses with 50 or fewer employees are still unable to enroll in health care plans directly through the site.

Additionally, the online payment system is still not functioning and premiums for those that have signed up through the Vermont exchange up are being invoiced on paper and must be paid by check.

Vermont is the only state to mandate health insurance coverage for individuals and small businesses on the exchange.

Despite the challenges, Shumlin said he plans to stick with CGI as it continues work to improve the site rather than seek a new firm.

“Right now, we have been testing key pieces that will get our exchange where it needs to be to help small businesses sign up and to be able to pay electronically. My focus — my sole focus right now — is working with CGI and our partners to have them get that right,” Shumlin said in an interview Friday. “It’s taken them too long already and my job is to keep the pedal to the metal.

Shumlin did not commit to sticking with CGI forever, though.

“I didn’t say that,” he said. “I said that my focus really has to be getting the pieces that we have been testing working.”

Dumping CGI now would is not in the state’s best interest, according to Shumlin.

“When you’re in the build of a complex technology project and you have contracted for a product that needs to be delivered, it’s usually not in your best interest when you get 80 percent of the way to bring in a new contractor,” he said.

Still, the governor said his team did consider that option after the rocky rollout in October.

“When we looked at the disappointing rollout in early October we looked at all the options and felt that it was in our best interest to do what we’ve been doing, which is to work together with a contractor that has disappointed us and try to get the product that they’re asking us to pay for,” Shumlin said.

Shumlin said his administration is continuing to work with CGI officials, but the relationship has been strained at times.

“We spent a lot of time with them working together to try to get this right. There’s been days where I’ve done that with charm and grace and there’s been days where I’ve used everything else in my arsenal, some of which my mom wouldn’t be proud of. But, we’re trying to get results,” he said.

Sen. Sally Fox loses battle with cancer

MONTPELIER — Chittenden County Sen. Sally Fox died early Friday morning after a prolonged battled with lung cancer.

Fox, 62, a Democrat from South Burlington, was in her second term in the Senate. She was serving on the Senate Health and Welfare and Appropriations Committees.

House Speaker Shap Smith announced her death Friday morning in the House chamber, saying she died peacefully, surrounded by family, around 3:15 a.m. Services will be held Sunday in South Burlington at Temple Sinai, according to Smith.

Later in the morning, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott gaveled the Senate to order by noting that Fox’s death was “bringing the first week of the session to a tragic close.” Fox’s desk was clear except for a single, white rose.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell said the recent news of Fox’s death made it “very difficult to compose our thoughts.” He said a resolution honoring Fox will be prepared for Tuesday, when senators will be able to provide their own remarks in her honor.

Fox’s colleagues in the Legislature said Friday that she was deeply respected for her work advocating for the poor and disabled through her work as an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid.

Fox was elected to the House in 1986 and served in that chamber for 14 years. She served as chairwoman of the House Appropriation and Judiciary Committees, and as House Assistant Majority Leader.

Sen. Sally Fox

Sen. Sally Fox

According to her Senate campaign website, Fox was most proud of her role in creating the Vermont Family Court system, which consolidated all family and child-related issues into a single venue.

Sen. Claire Ayer, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said a was placed outside the committee room to allow people to leave messages for Fox’s family.

“A lot of people who work in this building — lobbyists, students, pages, whatever — are grieving about Sen. Fox and … it’s surprising the number of constituents who come here … who are grieving and would like to say something to her family, so we have put some paper out there and a pen,” she said. said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, who served on the House Judiciary Committee when first appointed to the House, said Fox served as a mentor to him, and will be remembered for her role as an advocate.

“Sally Fox was a relentless champion for kids and vulnerable Vermonters. Those who often lack a voice always had an advocate with Sally in the State House,” Shumlin said in a statement. “Sally took me under her wing and taught me a great deal about how to effectively serve Vermonters in the State House. She was a great friend, and I will miss her tremendously.”

Fox is survived by her husband and two adult sons.

Services will take place Sunday at Temple Sinai in South Burlington on Sunday, followed by a private burial.

House approves campaign finance measure

MONTPELIER — The Housed passed a campaign finance reform bill Thursday on a bipartisan vote following a conference committee with Senate negotiators.

The legislation sailed through the House on a 124 to 15 roll call vote, but some members are disappointed in the final version of the legislation. The plan will raise some contribution limits.

House and Senate negotiators met out of session over the last several months after failing to reach agreement before the end of the 2013 legislative session. They  signed off on a compromise plan Tuesday, the first day of the 2014 legislative session.

The agreement will allow individuals, corporations and PACs  to contribute twice as much money — from $2,000 to $4,000 — directly to statewide candidates and PACs.

Meanwhile, political parties can now raise $10,000 directly from those same groups, up from $2,000, and up to $60,000 from their national parties.

Candidates for the Legislature will see a decrease in the contributions they can currently receive. Contributions to House candidates will capped at $1,000, while contributions to Senate candidates will be reduced to $1,500.

Political parties will be able to funnel unlimited amounts of money to candidates, however.

Independent and Progressive candidates said that provides an unfair advantage to Democrats and Republicans who can receive unlimited funding from their respective parties.

Some House members addressed the chamber to explain their votes, saying they voted in favor of the bill because it is time for the state to have limits in place.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, a Democrat from Arlington, said she voted against the bill because the contribution limits are too high and more disclosure should be required closer to elections. The bill is “not enough to even be called campaign finance reform,” she said.

The Senate will consider the compromise bill next week.