Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott reiterated his call to abandon Vermont Health Connect in a web video released Thursday by his gubernatorial campaign.
Scott is facing off in a primary with former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman, who is also calling for shutting down the state’s online health insurance marketplace.
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott calls for an independent assessment of Vermont Health Connect last month. (VPB/Josh O\’Gorman)
In an email sent to supporters Thursday morning, Scott’s campaign said he has been calling for “real” solutions for “more than two years” to fix the exchange, which has faced technological shortcomings since it launched in October 2013.
“Elect Phil Scott and Vermont will transition to a better, less costly model that provides Vermonters more affordable health insurance choices,” the campaign wrote in the email.
Vermont Health Connect launched without some major functions that were expected, including the ability for consumers to make changes to personal information online, such as their address or marital status. They had to go through a cumbersome manual process rather than the faster, automated way the website was expected to offer.
That function has since been added, but has experienced ongoing problems and was disabled for some time, resulted in a new backlog of requested changes the state is continuing to address.
Additionally, small business employees, who are required by state law to obtain health insurance through the exchange, were not allowed to enroll through the website and must obtain insurance directly from carriers. The state is now seeking a waiver from the federal government to continue bypassing the exchange in favor of direct enrollment.
Scott, last month, joined with several GOP lawmakers in calling for an independent assessment of the exchange. In Thursday’s email, the campaign said Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, who is not seeking re-election, “continues to stubbornly refuse to do the right thing.” Scott, if elected governor, “will solve the problem when he’s elected Governor by transitioning to the federal exchange or a multi-state alternative that offers better, more affordable choices,” according to his campaign.
The Shumlin administration has said moving to the federal exchange would cost millions in up-front costs as well as millions more in ongoing operational costs. Scott said those costs should be explored as part of the independent assessment he has called for “so that we could understand the full ramifications of moving to the federal exchange or some other exchange.”
“We’re just hearing that from the administration,” Scott told the Vermont Press Bureau. “An independent body, such as the Green Mountain Care Board, could take a look at all aspects of moving to something else, including the costs of doing so. I think having some options on the table that all of us could consider would be appropriate.”
Lisman would also ditch the exchange and reverse many of Shumlin’s other health care reform actions, his campaign manager Shawn Shouldice said.
“Bruce Lisman has been very vocal and very consistent since day one — Bruce opposes the mandate, opposes the tax on independent doctors and dentists, will protect Medicare and the ability for patients to see their doctor, has called for an audit of the Medicaid program, has called for the shutdown of Vermont Health Connect and for the transition of our state exchange to the federal exchange,” she wrote in an email to the Vermont Press Bureau.
Shouldice lumped Scott in with “political insiders” who “have stood by quietly while Gov. Shumlin experimented with our access to health care and insurance.”
“I’m glad to see Phil Scott, who has served in the capacity of Vermont’s Lt. Governor for the past five years, join Bruce Lisman in his opposition to the mandate, a shutdown of Vermont Health Connect and a transition of our state exchange to something else, but there is so much more to be done,” she wrote.
The positions staked out by both Scott and Lisman have little support with Vermonters, according to a recent poll commissioned by Vermont Public Radio. The poll asked 895 respondents what they think should be done to address health care reform.
Just 8 percent said they want to discard Vermont Health Connect and “adopt the federal exchange.” More — 20 percent — said they want to improve and continue with the exchange. Another 33 percent said they want to move to a single payer health care system. Another 19 percent said they prefer some other, unspecified action, and 19 percent were unsure.
Scott said only a fraction of the state’s residents have health insurance coverage through the exchange. Those that do would overwhelming choose to abandon it, he said.
“When you look at the amount of people actually enrolled in the exchange it’s a small number. If you took the 35,000 people enrolled and asked them about moving to the federal exchange or some other … I would say that the percentage would be higher,” Scott said. “I would say it would be closer to 100 percent. It’s all in who you ask and how you ask it.”
Shouldice suggested that more Vermonters would want to move to the federal exchange if they knew the state was required by the federal government to be part of one or the other.
“It is very clear in our meetings and communications with Vermonters they don’t know the ACA requires us to provide access to an exchange. A Lisman Administration will work to restore more choice and options for Vermonters beyond an exchange of any type,” Shouldice wrote.
On the Democratic side of the gubernatorial race, both candidates want to review the exchange themselves as governor before determining its future.
“I think we can all agree that the current solution is not working. Having been in IT for much of my career, I also know that I can’t make a prescription for how to fix it until I get a team of people under the hood,” said former Windsor County Sen. Matt Dunne, who recently left his job at Google to focus on the campaign.
He said the Shumlin administration has “tried very hard” to make the exchange work, but intimated better developers and managers would have a different outcome. Creating a working exchange is “not enormously complicated if you have the right people actually designing it and implementing it,” he said.
Dunne said he will not rule out any potential options but has reservations about “putting our health care future in the hands of the federal government.” Likewise, he said a partnership with another state could be disadvantageous to Vermont.
“They would be the larger stakeholder and we would have to be deferring to their priorities. I don’t think that would be good for us,” he said.
Molly Ritner, campaign manager for former Agency of Transportation Secretary Sue Minter, said Minter believes it is “relatively clear that Vermont Health Connect is not functioning correctly.” But a full analysis of the exchange is required, Ritner said, and Minter will seek that as governor.
“The first step is not to throw out the baby with the bath water and see if this is something that we can fix,” Ritner said. “Before we make a decision on how to move forward we need to do an analysis of the system and find out where we are and be thoughtful about the next steps to make sure that we do it in a cost-efficient manner and that we solve it in a manner that makes it more costumer-friendly, because that’s what Vermonters deserve.”
“Then if it that is not the case then, yes, we need to consider other options,” Ritner added.