Lawmakers Hope Independent Review Determines What's Ailing Vt. Health Connect

Jun 30, 2016

Vermont lawmakers are about to spend $250,000 on an independent study of the state’s online health insurance marketplace, and legislative leaders say the assessment will help determine the fate of Vermont Health Connect.

It isn’t the first time policymakers have invested considerable sums of public money to investigate the inner workings of Vermont Health Connect. It is, however, the first one commissioned solely by the legislative branch. 

“I think the concern in the past, valid or not, was that the evaluations were shaded one way or another depending on who was doing the evaluation,” says House Speaker Shap Smith. 

Smith says separating this latest study from oversight by the Shumlin administration will lend a measure of credibility and objectivity to its findings. And legislative leaders say those findings will determine whether they want to stay the course with the program in place now, throw in the towel and merge with the federal version of the online insurance marketplace, or pursue some kind of hybrid option. 

“What we need to really get a handle on is what elements of the programming and infrastructure behind Vermont Health Connect are acceptable and will work into the future and which elements of it will not,” says Chittenden County Sen. Tim Ashe, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Ashe says lawmakers aren’t asking independent consultants merely for an overview of the problems at Vermont Health Connect. Rather he says the consultants will return in December with the elusive answer to the overarching question that has so far bedeviled policymakers. 

"If the solutions were easy, they would have been arrived at sooner." - Sen. Tim Ashe, Senate Finance Committee chairman

“What is the best action step we can take as a state to make sure we don’t have any of these problems moving forward?” Ashe says.

Those problems include billing errors, erroneous lapses in coverage and other issues related to the marketplace’s complex technological components.

Lawrence Miller, chief of health care reform for the Shumlin administration, says the program has vastly improved since its inception. He says the administration has already conducted the due diligence needed to justify continuing with a state-based marketplace.

“Any alternative adds a lot more expense,” Miller says. “And when you get into the details, as they will, then I expect they will report the same conclusions that we came to.”

"When you get into the details, as they will, then I expect they will report the same conclusions that we came to." - Lawrence Miller, health care reform chief

Smith, however, says nearly three years after its launch, the system still isn’t up to snuff.

“The fact that I still am getting complaints about user experience creates concern for me, and I want to know why those complaints are still happening,” Smith says.

Ashe says the administration is no longer in a position to be in charge of long-term planning for the insurance exchange its built.

“When you have authorship of a program and it’s struggling, you can’t always be counted on to provide a fresh set of eyes and judgment on the product that you’ve got,” Ashe says.

"I want to know why those [user] complaints are still happening." - House Speaker Shap Smith

The Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office is currently vetting bids for the independent assessment contract. The final report back is due in December, and Ashe says it’ll provide the roadmap the newly elected Legislature and governor will need to make decisions about how to proceed.

Both Republican candidates for governor have already said they’ll abandon Vermont Health Connect in favor of a collaboration with other states, or joining with the federal exchange.

As the political season kicks into gear, Ashe says voters should be wary of candidates claiming to have simple solutions to what he says is a complex problem. 

“If the solutions were easy, they would have been arrived at sooner,” Ashe says.

The bidder chosen to perform the work will begin conducting the assessment in July.