Governor Peter Shumlin is not quite ready to unfurl a "mission accomplished" banner, but he says that Vermont Health Connect is on track to meet its next major technological deadline.
Shumlin says the program's biggest critics might want to reconsider their opposition to the insurance marketplace.
Last March when consumer disgust with Vermont Health Connect was at its height, Shumlin issued a surprise decree: if the program didn't meet two key milestones before Nov. 1, then he would abandon the state-based exchange in favor of a different kind of marketplace.
On Thursday morning, in a press conference at his ceremonial office in the Statehouse, Shumlin said the state is on the verge of delivering on both.
"The technology upgrades necessary for a smooth open enrollment have been delivered and tested and will be deployed this evening," Shumlin said.
Vermont Health Connect had long suffered from two major shortcomings: difficulty processing changes to customer's policies, and an inability to automatically enroll people in plans.
Shumlin says software delivered in June solved the first problem and the technology that will be installed over the weekend will take care of the second.
Shumlin says Vermont isn't the only state that's struggled to institute the insurance exchanges mandated by the federal Affordable Care Act.
"We got into this mess, all of us together, and we're all getting out in different ways. I'm very proud of the way Vermont has chosen to get out of this mess," Shumlin said.
Critics of Vermont Health Connect, however, say they're not ready to declare victory. House Speaker Shap Smith, who earlier this year called for contingency plans in the event the exchange didn't improve, says he's guardedly optimistic. Smith is a Democratic candidate for governor.
"Clearly we need to see how things function in a live environment and I don't think any of us are going to be satisfied until all the cases are resolved, and the system is functioning effectively for everyone," he said.
Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, also a candidate for governor, has called for a transition to a federal version of the exchange. Scott says he's not sure Vermont can afford the system it's built, or that the website is running as well as Shumlin has suggested.
"I think that the proof really will be when we hear from Vermonters about their experience with the exchange," Scott said.
Cassandra Gekas is director of operations for Vermont Health Connect. She says the administration understands it will take more than press conferences to earn the faith of consumers.
"The real test of success will be our ability to deliver a smooth renewals process for Vermonters on Nov. 1," Gekas said.
Don George, CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont, the state's largest private insurer, says he's optimistic Vermont Health Connect has turned the corner. He says the Shumlin administration's approach to the exchange mandate has improved the health insurance landscape in the state. Vermont is the only state that requires all individuals and small businesses to purchase insurance plans sold in the exchange.
"Vermont's approach to having all of their qualified health plan enrollees, individuals and small businesses all in one pool, which is different than other states, has been a health reform initiative success in Vermont that has really gone unnoticed," said George.
Vermont Health Connect will be offline this weekend for the installation of the new enrollment software.