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Vt. Health Exchange Sparks Partisan Robocall vs. Email War

Montpelier — The unveiling of Vermont Health Connect, the state’s health insurance exchange, has spawned an email and phone-call battle between advocacy groups on opposite sides of the state’s exchange law.

Tuesday morning, during Vermont Health Connect’s dawning hours, a robocall sponsored by Vermonters for Health Care Freedom sought to rally 30,0000 Vermonters to call the governor’s office with protests against the new health care law.

The call, which cost $800 according to VHCF executive director Darcie Johnston, encouraged people to ask Gov. Peter Shumlin to delay mandatory enrollment in the exchange for another year. It also instructed them to tell him to repeal the mandate entirely.

About 100,000 Vermonters are legally required to buy insurance through Vermont Health Connect in 2014. In other states, participation in the exchange is voluntary.

Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which supports the law, took issue with the content of that call and launched a counteroffensive.

The spat between advocacy organizations is information-oriented. The call suggested, according to Johnston, that, “many thousands of Vermonters could become uninsured come January because of the bungled Shumlin exchange.”

VPIRG’s consumer protection advocate, Falko Schilling, said HCF’s claim was misleading.

According to VPIRG, the number of Vermonters with insurance will rise under the new health care law and the state’s intended transition to a single-payer health care system.

VPIRG decided to counter VHCF’s campaign by targeting Johnston’s email inbox rather than the governor’s phone lines.

In an email blast to members, VPIRG urged people to email Johnston, asking her to put a halt to “the scare tactics and robocalls.”

The form letter, provided to members, tells Johnston, “Frightening Vermonters into believing that they will soon go uninsured just so you can score political points is irresponsible, and I’m sure, ultimately ineffective.”

In response, Johnston, who said she received roughly 200 emails, issued a news release Wednesday criticizing Schilling and VPIRG for adopting “totalitarian” tactics.

“What (Schilling) did was mobilize his hordes to try to silence our message, not by calling the governor’s office and voicing their contrary opinions, but by flooding my email account,” the statement reads. “Now VPIRG has resorted to the methods favored by totalitarians everywhere – to suppress any dissent from their gospel of the all-powerful state.”

Schilling said VPIRG was simply giving its members a chance to express their dissatisfaction with what he described as VHCF’s fear-inducing political stunt.

“Our members are upset with all these attacks about the [Affordable Care Act] and I thought it was appropriate to tell her what they thought about the campaign and the misleading scare tactics they were using,” Schilling said, in defense of the decision to direct VPIRG members to fill VHCR’s inbox.

Emails were sent to Johnston’s email account, Schilling explained, because that was the designated contact address on VHCF’s website.

VHCF’s news release rehashed its demands to Shumlin — to either delay the mandate or do away with it — and added one to the queue: “we call on Gov. Shumlin to publicly disavow the reprehensible tactics of his supporters at VPIRG, in attempting to silence our voice.”

The dispute between VPIRG and VHCF echoes another episode of sparring over the exchange, which played out in the op-ed section of VTDigger.org. On Sept. 29, Randy Brock, the 2012 Republican candidate for governor, contributed a commentary alleging that the exchange is dysfunctional and that the Shumlin administration has obfuscated major snags during the setup process.

The following day, Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access, wrote a rebuttal. Larson’s op-ed defended the functionality of the exchange, and described Brock’s claims as “based on a combination of information that is inaccurate, outdated or both.”