Shumlin administration set to deploy new exchange function

MONTPELIER — State officials maintained cautious optimism throughout the summer that an automated enrollment process will be added to Vermont Health Connect by Thursday’s self-imposed deadline and are preparing to deploy it this weekend.

Lawrence Miller, Gov. Peter Shumlin’s chief of health care reform, said officials expect the online health insurance marketplace to be taken offline Thursday night to allow the function to be deployed. The site is expected to remain offline through the weekend.

Lawrence Miller

Lawrence Miller

Miller said the function has been in vigorous testing over the last several weeks and is on track to be deployed. The state’s contractor, Optum, has been testing code to ensure that it works for users when open enrollment begins on Nov. 1, as well as for carriers and the firm that processes premium payments for the state. Officials have also been testing business processes, he said.

“Really making sure that the user experience … is going to be what we’re looking for,” Miller said.

Coders with Optum have been making last-minute adjustments to code. Major defects have been addressed but some minor issues may remain, according to Miller, which can be fixed after the system is deployed.

“We might have some low-level defects that can be solved by a code change or mitigated by a process change,” he said. “There will always be things once you take the code out of testing and put it in a live environment … that you find after go-live.”

Call center employees have been receiving training on how to utilize the automated renewal function.

“We’ve got to make sure that when the new system comes up that everybody in the call center can still do their job even through they’re faced with new technology,” Miller said.

Scott Coriell, the governor’s spokesman, said Shumlin will hold a news conference to detail progress Thursday morning.

“We’re on track. We’re cautiously optimistic about tomorrow, but as with all big technology projects you never know until you know,” he said.VTHealthConnect

In March, the governor promised the so-called change-of-circumstance function would be operational by the end of May. The function allows for automated changes to a user’s account when they have a life event, including marriage or the birth of a child. The administration declared victory earlier this year, but making life changes to a user’s account is still performed by Vermont Health Connect employees and not the end user.

Shumlin also promised an automated renewal process for enrollees would be in place by Oct. 1. The governor and his team will address the second benchmark Thursday.

State officials outside the administration say they want to know that the automated renewal process is working. Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a declared candidate for governor, said Wednesday he did not know what progress the administration has made.

“I actually don’t know anything about what they’re going to say. I haven’t heard a peep,” he said. “I would say if they’re going to have the press conference it would be to declare victory.”

Scott said he is hoping Shumlin will announce the Vermont Health Connect website is fully functional.

“I’m not holding my breath,” he said.

Shumlin’s promised benchmarks followed a host of missed deadlines and technological setbacks since the exchange launched in October 2013. The exchange, created under the federal Affordable Care Act, has never performed as expected and has been a source of frustration for customers, the administration and lawmakers.

Shumlin said in March that failure to meet the benchmarks would result in the state transitioning to an exchange run by the federal government, or perhaps a state-federal hybrid model. Scott said he will continue to push for that if the system is not working this week.

“I think what it means for me is that we stop receiving phone calls from frustrated Vermonters who aren’t able to sign up, not able to pay their bills and not able to utilize the process as has been promised,” Scott said. “The governor and the administration are the ones that have set the deadline and I believe have said it would be fully automated by then. So, that’s my expectation, that they would fulfill that promise.”

Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith has said he will push the administration to abandon the exchange and join the federal site if the benchmarks are not met. He said Wednesday that he will review the administration’s progress before determining whether a transition from the state exchange is needed.

Shap Smith

House Speaker Shap Smith (VPB/Neal Goswami)

“I expect the administration to give us an overview of where the exchange stands and my hope is they will give us positive news. At that point in time we’ll evaluate whether options might be necessary,” he said. My understanding is the administration is thinking about other options as a precautionary measure.”

The House Health Care Committee will meet in the near future to review progress.

“I know that the chair of the Health Care Committee … is planning to have a committee hearing in the next couple of weeks to unpack what the administration has put forward,” Smith said.

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