Some exchange bills to be mailed, online payment still unavailable

MONTPELIER — State officials said Monday that online functions to process premiums the health care plans selected by individuals and families on the state’s exchange will be deployed overnight for a Tuesday launch.

Online credit card payment is still not ready, however. That function will not launch until security testing is completed, according to Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson.

Invoices will be mailed later this week to individuals and families who have selected plans through the exchange. Those bills will need to be paid by check no later than Jan. 7 for coverage beginning Jan. 1.

The deployment of premium processing function is set to begin at 5 p.m. on Monday. The Vermont Health Connect website will be unavailable for applications and plan selection during the deployment, according to officials. The site is expected to be down until late Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile, the payment function for small businesses remains in testing.

As a result, small businesses and their employees who have selected health coverage through VHC will have current coverage extended into 2014 at 2013 rates until the payment function for small businesses is operational, officials said. Deductibles and out of pocket costs on all extended plans will reset on Jan. 1. Any expenditures will be credited to employees’ new exchange plan in 2014 as long as the carrier remains the same.

About 1,400 small businesses who have signed up for health coverage through the website online, over the phone, with a navigator or through a paper application are affected. Those businesses employ about 13,400 people.

Small businesses that have already elected to extend 2013 coverage or directly enroll through an insurance carrier into an exchange plan, or small businesses that chose to have their carrier roll them into an exchange plan that most closely resembles their current coverage are not impacted.

Check Tuesday’s Herald and Times Argus for the full story.

Larson testimony was contrary to report filed with federal officials

MONTPELIER — Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson unequivocally denied any security breaches within Vermont Health Connect to lawmakers earlier this month, information that was contrary to what he apparently knew at the time of his testimony before the House Health Care Committee.

Larson penned a letter of apology over the discrepancy to the committee’s chairman on Sunday, which was made public by the Shumlin administration on Monday.

Larson was peppered with questions by Republican Rep. Mary Morrissey during a Nov. 5 hearing about Vermont Health Connect, the state’s version of the online health insurance marketplaces required under the federal Affordable Care Act. Morrissey was inquiring about security concerns with the website.

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The Bennington Republican said she had heard of security breaches and asked Larson if any users’ personal information had been accessed in an unauthorized way.

Larson responded unequivocally that no security breaches had occurred.

“We have no situations where somebody’s private information has been breached,” he said. “We have looked into and we have found no situation where somebody’s private information has been breached.”

Seemingly unconvinced, Morrissey tried again: “There has been none?” she
asked.

“Yes. We have done the appropriate investigation of each case. We’ve identified … we have investigated each one. We have followed our appropriate privacy and security procedures,” Larson responded.

In his apology letter, Larson acknowledged in his response to those questions his failure to include information about one particular case, first reported on Friday by the Associated Press.

“During the November 5th committee hearing, I was asked about whether any security failures had occurred in Vermont Health Connect. I responded that no situation had occurred where somebody’s private information had been breached. I then attempted to clarify that we had investigated all reports and followed appropriate procedures. I should have instead also included in my response the facts of this single incident, and am sorry that my statements to the committee did not do so,” Larson wrote.

The AP reported Friday that Larson’s department knew of a security breach about three weeks before his testimony to the House Health Care Committee. His office had notified the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services about an incident in which the social security number of one person using Vermont Health Connect was inadvertently supplied to another user on the system.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, who spoke with reporters Monday at an unrelated event, said the breach was the result of two users with similar user names.

“One of them got the other one’s information and alerted us to that fact. It was not an external security breach where people can go in and see other people’s information,” Shumlin said.

The governor said he became aware of Larson’s testimony “in the last couple of days by reading about it in the press.” Despite Larson’s “lapse in judgment,” Shumlin said the commissioner maintains his full support.

“I have absolute confidence in Commissioner Larson. He’s under tremendous pressure. They all are at Vermont Health Connect. He’s doing an extraordinary job there, working long hours, seven days a week. They’ll continue to get that website right and get good results,” Shumlin said.

The governor said he did not at any point consider asking Larson to resign his post.

“It’s as simple as this: We all make mistakes. None of us are immune to making mistakes. Commissioner Larson has acknowledged he made a mistake. He viewed the question, differently than, I think, objectively, many of us would have. I take Mark at his word that he made a mistake. We’re all capable of them. I make them, too. We go forward from here,” Shumlin said.

Read tomorrow’s editions of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald for full coverage of this story by Dave Gram, the Associated Press reporter who broke news of the security breach last Friday.

Peter Shumlin, Shap Smith react swiftly, severely to Larson apology

Peter Shumlin

Peter Shumlin

In an unprecedented public dressing-down of a sitting member of his executive cabinet, Peter Shumlin today said he’s “tremendously disappointed” in a commissioner who withheld information lawmakers about a security breach on the new health insurance website.

House Speaker Shap Smith, meanwhile, said the incident will undermine Mark Larson’s ability to work with the legislative branch on the massive health care reform efforts that Larson’s department is spearheading.

To see Larson’s apology, and statements in full from Shumlin and Smith, click on the document links below.

“I take this incident extremely seriously. It is unacceptable to be anything less than fully cooperative and transparent with Vermonters and their elected representatives in the Legislature,” Shumlin said in a written statement issued earlier this morning.  “The legislators in Montpelier represent the Vermonters we are all elected to serve, and they have a right to have their questions answered fully. That did not happen in this case, and I have made clear to Mark and other members of my administration that it must never happen again.” Continue reading

DVHA commissioner apologizes for vague answer on exchange security breach

MONTPELIER — A state official overseeing the state’s health care exchange apologized to lawmakers Monday for withholding information about a single security breach of personal information when questioned during a House Health Care Committee hearing earlier this month.

Department of Vermont Health Access Mark Larson acknowledged in a letter to the committee dated Sunday that a security breach did occur in November and he did not provide details when questioned about security concerns by Republican Rep. Mary Morrissey of Bennington.

“During the November 5th committee hearing, I was asked about whether any security failures had occurred in Vermont Health Connect. I responded that no situation had occurred where somebody’s private information had been breached. I then attempted to clarify that we had investigated all reports and followed appropriate procedures. I should have instead also included in my response the facts of this single incident, and am sorry that my statements to the committee did not do so,” Larson wrote. Continue reading

Christie fundraiser sells out

MONTPELIER — The Vermont GOP’s Welcome Winter Gala featuring New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has sold out, according to a party official.

Brent Burns, the state GOP’s political director, wrote to supporters Monday with the news. Party officials “have been absolutely overwhelmed by the excitement it has generated among Vermonters across the political spectrum,” he wrote.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

The event, set for Dec. 11 at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex, is being hosted by Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann. Christie, who easily won a second term earlier this month over Democratic challenger Barbara Buono, is likely to headline the Vermont GOP’s most successful event ever, according to Burns

“It has been a long time since we’ve enjoyed this kind of enthusiasm, and we couldn’t be more proud. We have already sold more than 600 seats and this event promises to be the most successful VTGOP event of all time,” he wrote.

No additional tickets can be reserved at this time. But Burns said the party is looking at options to allow more people to attend and is generating a waiting list if additional tickets can be sold.

The Vermont GOP recently reorganized and elected a new party chairman following a public, intra-party spat between party factions. The Christie fundraiser is “just the beginning of the revitalization of the Vermont Republican Party in Vermont,” Burns wrote.

Forced medication rules rejected by legislative panel

MONTPELIER — Rules proposed by the Department of Mental Health regarding emergency involuntary procedures were rejected Thursday by the Legislature’s Administrative Rules Committee.

The department was seeking approval of rules to govern how and when psychiatric patients can be involuntarily secluded, restrained or be subjected to forced medication.

The state created a regional system of mental health treatment after Tropical Storm Irene destroyed the former Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury. Act 79, which created the regional system, also required that patients receive the same rights and protections at private hospitals that they would have received at the state hospital. Continue reading

Report finds single payer costs may be higher than thought

####_loc_WebHealthMONTPELIER — An independent report delivered to lawmakers Thursday found that the savings estimated by the Shumlin administration in a proposed single payer health care plan may not be as high as projected.

Avalere Health LLC, commissioned by Vermont Partners for Health Care Reform, studied a previous report prepared for Gov. Peter Shumlin’s proposed universal health care system that he hopes will be implemented in 2017. The analysis presented by Avalere Thursday found three main areas of concern.

The Shumlin administration, based on its own study conducted by the University of Massachusetts, found that it would cost about $1.6 billion to finance Shumlin’s plan. The Avalere report believes that cost could be as high as $2.2 billion.

Administration officials countered Thursday by arguing that it still provides significant savings from the more than $3 billion spent annually on health care now outside of federal programs.

The report also noted that payments to providers are likely to drop, creating a disincentive for doctors to practice in Vermont.

Additionally, the administration may be projecting too rosy a scenario in terms of administrative cost saves, according the the Avalere report. The administration is projecting a savings based on a projected 12 percent administrative cost. The report states that the state’s largest insurance carrier, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont, is already delivering insurance below the administration’s projected 7 percent under the proposed health care plan.

Vermont Partners for Health Care Reform includes Fletcher Allen Health Care, the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, the Vermont Medical Society, the Vermont Business Roundtable, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, the Vermont Assembly of Home Health and Hospice Agencies and Blue Cross.

A full story will appear in Friday’s Herald and Times Argus.

Democratic PAC settles with state

MONTPELIER — A Democratic PAC must may a $30,000 penalty for violating the state’s campaign finance law during the 2010 election.

Green Mountain Future, a political action committee created by the Democratic Governors Association has settled with the state for the $30,000 penalty, Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell announced Wednesday.

The settlement, which has been approved by the Vermont Superior Court, requires GMF to pay the state a civil penalty of $20,000 for failing to include its address on its website or in television ads that ran during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. GMF must also pay a $10,000 penalty the court had previously imposed for not registering as a PAC and filing campaign finance reports.

“Voters are legally entitled to know who is seeking to influence them,” Sorrell said a statement. “PACs need to obey the laws. They cannot hide. They must disclose their identity, including their address, their donors, and their expenditures, to the extent required by law.”

GMF spent more than $500,000 during the 2010 campaign on political ads. Television ads attacking Republican candidate Brian Dubie, the state’s former lieutenant governor, aired thousands of times but did not include complete identifying information. The public had no way of knowing who was behind the ads because GMF did not file required reports, Sorrell said.

The Vermont Superior Court determined that GMF violated Vermont’s campaign finance laws in Dec. 2011 but did not impose a financial penalty for its failure to fully identify itself in ads.

The Vermont Supreme Court then ruled in September that the lower court erred in not imposing a penalty. In its decision the Vermont Supreme Court said “the difficulty of calculating a penalty [does not] mean that no penalty can be awarded.”

The case returned to the trial court for consideration of an appropriate penalty. The settlement announced Wednesday closes out the only remaining issue in the enforcement action, Sorrell said.

Klein ready to contemplate partial deregulation of electric utilities

State Rep. Tony Klein

State Rep. Tony Klein

The chairman of the House’s top energy committee says it might be time to bring competition back to Vermont’s electricity market.

Rep. Tony Klein, an East Montpelier Democrat, said Tuesday that he’ll entertain a proposal to partially deregulate the state’s utility market, and allow the state’s largest corporate consumers of electricity to negotiate with power dealers outside their service territory.

The proposal comes as large electricity customers bemoan the cost of power than can account for as much as 20 percent of their operating expenses.

“I want to talk about creating a program, a model program, where some of the larger industries can benefit from a deregulated power market for some of their power needs,” Klein said while attending an annual meeting of the Associated Industries of Vermont. “It would be a big deal, but it’s something to think about, because the world is changing.”

Klein said he’s discussed the idea with the Department of Public Service and the Agency of Commerce.

Under the proposal, still in conceptual form, industrial customers would continue to pay the transmission-infrastructure fees assessed by the public utility in whose service territory they reside. But Klein says customers would be able to broker deals for the power flowing through those lines with whatever entity offered the lowest price.

For more on this story, check out tomorrow’s editions of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald.

Sunderland elected chairman of GOP, promises to “change the way we do business”

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo  Former Rutland Town representative David Sunderland gives a speech before being elected chair of the Vermont Republican Party during their convention in Montpelier Nov. 9.

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Former Rutland Town representative David Sunderland gives a speech before being elected chair of the Vermont Republican Party during their convention in Montpelier Nov. 9.

Escalating discord within the Vermont Republican Party came to a head Saturday in Montpelier, where the organization’s state committee rebuked current leadership by selecting a new chairman who promises “to rebuild.”

Former Rutland Town Rep. David Sunderland won a decisive victory over John MacGovern on a platform that hews to the fiscal issues – taxes, health care and spending – on which he said all Republicans can agree.

The race between Sunderland and MacGovern was in many ways a proxy war between two factions that have been battling for nearly a year now. And it represents a win for a bloc of disaffected Republicans who faulted outgoing chairman Jack Lindley for his allegiance to a Republican National Committee whose social conservatism, they said, repelled the centrists that swing elections Vermont.

“At this critical, pivotal moment in our party’s history, we have a unique opportunity to change,” Sunderland told the nearly 200 GOP diehards crowded into the Elks Club in Montpelier. “We can change the way we do business, shedding the past legacies of top-down management and opting instead for teamwork, openness and transparency.”

Candidates for positions on the party’s governing board offered kind words to Lindley, who nearly died last month after falling suddenly ill. But their remarks about the state of the party amounted to a stinging indictment of his tenure. Continue reading

Administration reveals exchange delay plan

MONTPELIER — The Shumlin administration released details Friday on how it plans to handle short-term insurance policies resulting from a three-month delay in the state-level mandate for insurance coverage on Vermont Health Connect.

Both individuals and small businesses can now extend current plans up to three months to March 31 while maintaining current 2013 rates. Individuals who have received notification from their insurance carrier that a current policy will be canceled can extend the plan.

Deductibles for current plans will reset on Jan. 1 as they typically would for a new plan year. Accepting a plan extension into 2014 is essentially a short plan year, administration officials said.

However, any deductible amounts and out-of-pocket expenses paid during the short extension period will be applied to a new 2014 exchange plan as long as the insurance carrier remains the same, officials said.

Additional changes have added the option for small businesses to enroll in exchange plans directly through MVP or Blue Cross. Administration officials said Friday that small businesses will soon receive a notice from their insurance carrier with information about the exchange plan closest to their current plan. Businesses choosing to enroll in that plan will be automatically rolled into it and billed.

Businesses that want to select a different plan, enroll themselves on the exchange or switch insurance carriers will have to contact their current carrier by Nov. 25.

To avoid any lapse in coverage, small businesses must select a “plan menu” for employees by Feb. 1, and employees will need to select a plan by Feb. 28 for April 1 coverage.

Meanwhile, Vermonters on Vermont Health Access Plan or Catamount who do not qualify for Medicaid in 2014 will have their plans automatically extended to March 31. The administration has previously said they would take steps to reach out to those Vermonters and assist them on enrolling in an exchange plan before the end of the year.

A fact sheet is available here.

A full story will appear in Saturday’s editions of the Herald and Times Argus.

VHC

Snelling apologizes to Lisman, but says he believes CFV founder’s gubernatorial hopes are real

Hours after alleging publicly that Campaign for Vermont founder Bruce Lisman has his eyes on governor’s seat, Mark Snelling apologized to the former Wall Street executive for the “mistake.”

In an email to Lisman Thursday night, Snelling wrote:

Bruce,

I owe you an apology.

I was doing an interview and I was trying to make a point about future elections and the dynamics of the various parties and how they can interact along with possible third parties.

To make my point, I spoke about your organization and made statements about which I have no first-hand knowledge.
It was a discussion where CFV was a tangent and I should not have gone down that tangent.

It was a mistake and I apologize.

Mark

The mea culpa arrived in Lisman’s in-box at about 8:15 p.m., about two hours after Snelling’s claims were broadcast in a news bit on this site.

“The reality is that within the last eight weeks, Bruce Lisman has considered running for governor,” Snelling said Thursday afternoon. “He’s had a budget put in front of him, saying that it would cost $3.2 million to run for governor. And he sat through a three to four-hour meeting and thought about it and looked at all sides of it and decided against it.”

Snelling, who confirmed this morning that he sent the apology to Lisman last night, said he stands by his assertion about Lisman’s gubernatorial aspirations.

“I fully believe that what I said was true,” Snelling said this morning.

But Snelling said he felt that the story was devoid of the context in which he’d made the comments. Snelling said that if Lisman chose to pull the trigger on a bid, then he would, as Snelling understands it, run as an Independent. And as part of that candidacy, Snelling said, Campaign for Vermont would send an emissary to the Vermont Republican Party, and prevail upon the organization to leave the top of the ticket open to give Lisman a one-on-one shot against Shumlin.

Snelling said he thinks that could be terrible for the party. And he said it’s a potentially relevant piece of information as it relates to the current battle for the GOP chairmanship between David Sunderland – the choice of Lt. Gov. Phil Scott – and John MacGovern, who is favored by Snelling and outgoing incumbent Jack Lindley.

As a member of Campaign for Vermont, Snelling said, David Sunderland might be willing to leave the top of the Republican ticket open for Lisman, lest he split the conservative vote with an ‘R.’

(Snelling had earlier called Sunderland a “founding” member of CFV – a designation given by the group to its earliest members. But according to CFV, Sunderland isn’t a founding member,  but a “partner,” as the organization refers to its regular members.)

Fueling his concern, Snelling said, was Scott’s lack of public enthusiasm for the last Republican gubernatorial candidate, on whose behalf Scott, the most popular Republican in Vermont, seemed uninterested in stumping for on the campaign trail.

Snelling, Lindley, and Darcie Johnston, a longtime Republican operative and a part of their inner circle, have amped up their criticism of Scott in recent days for what they say is his too-cozy relationship with the Democratic governor.

The noise about a Lisman run, combined with Sunderland’s ties to the man, combined with Scott’s perceived ambivalence toward Republican candidates, Senlling said, make him wary of putting Sunderland and Scott in charge of the party’s statewide apparatus.

“I felt like my comment about Bruce ended up out of context of that initial discussion,” Snelling said.

Whatever the context, Snelling said he “felt badly” about bringing Lisman “into a greater discussion about the party when I could have made my point more effectively by speaking in more general terms.”

“I’ve had a relationship with Bruce for many years,” Snelling said. “And I very much value that relationship.”

With new appointment, women outnumber men in House Democratic caucus

For the first time in the history of the state, women will outnumber their male counterparts in a major-party caucus of the Legislature.

Gov. Peter Shumlin Friday announced that he’ll appoint Marjorie Ryerson, of Randolph Village, to the House seat formerly held by Rep. Larry Townsend, a Democrat who passed away after an illness earlier this year.

Ryerson, a 40-year-old selectboard member who is a poet, writer and editor, according to an administration release, beat out two other candidates forwarded to Shumlin by the local Democratic committee.

“It was a difficult choice because there were three exceptional candidates,” Shumlin said in a release. “I am excited to make this appointment and I look forward to working with Marjorie in the upcoming legislative session. I know she will do a great job representing the district and working for all Vermonters.”

Ryerson’s appointment means women will hold a majority of the 96 House seats occupied by Democrats, the first time that’s happened in a caucus of either party in either body of the Legislature, according to the administration.

“It is both amazing and sobering that we should celebrate such a milestone only now in 2013,” House Speaker Shap Smith said in a written statement. “But it is a reflection of the tremendous strides that women have made in the last 30 years and is something that all Vermonters can and should celebrate.”

Ryerson, according to a press release, has been a writer and editor at a number of Vermont publications, including Vermont Life, the Barre Montpelier Times-Argus and the Burlington Free Press.

Mark Snelling says Bruce Lisman eying governor’s seat; Lisman’s people say “not true”

Bruce Lisman has dismissed as groundless the frequent speculation in the media about his political ambitions.

But Mark Snelling says the founder of Campaign for Vermont is far more interested in running for governor than he’s let on publicly.

According to Snelling, a longtime member of the Vermont GOP who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2010 and now serves as the party’s treasurer, Lisman in recent weeks gave serious thought to a 2014 bid against Peter Shumlin.

“The reality is that within the last eight weeks, Bruce Lisman has considered running for governor,” Snelling said today. “He’s had a budget put in front of him, saying that it would cost $3.2 million to run for governor. And he sat through a three to four-hour meeting and thought about it and looked at all sides of it and decided against it.”

Asked to source his tip, Snelling would say only that Montpelier has “very thin walls,” and that “Vermont is a very small place.”

He hinted that the alleged information came from within the ranks of Campaign for Vermont, the issue-advocacy outfit into which Lisman has poured about $1 million of his own money.

“Not everybody in Campaign for Vermont thinks that it would be a good idea,” Snelling said. “They think that Campaign for Vermont would be best served not being involved in electoral politics.”

Lisman was in Washington, D.C., Thursday and unavailable for comment. But Shawn Shouldice, a Montpelier lobbyist who works with Lisman’s organization, said there’s absolutely no truth to Snelling’s claim.

“It’s not true. There’s no discussion about running for governor,” Shouldice said. “Campaign for Vermont is a self-sustaining organization, and maybe this speaks to the success we’re having.”

Lisman’s alleged gubernatorial dreams are emblematic of the broader influence that Campaign for Vermont, according to Snelling, is hoping to exert on Republican politics in the state. Snelling’s evidence: David Sunderland, the GOP chairman candidate representing the Phil Scott wing of the Republican Party, is a “founding member” of Campaign for Vermont.

Christie to headline GOP fundraiser

MONTPELIER — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will be the featured guest at the Vermont Republican Party’s “Welcome Winter Gala” fundraiser next month.

The event, hosted by Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, will be held at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction on Dec. 11. The invitation, which went out Thursday morning, promises Vermont food, beverages and entertainment.

Christie won re-election on Tuesday by a comfortable margin over his Democratic challenger Barbara Buono.

Tickets to the event are $50 per person. For $1,000, a couple can attend a private reception with Christie.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (courtesy photo)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (courtesy photo)