Vt. Officials Questioned on Exchange

Montpelier — Senior officials with the administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin fielded tough questions Tuesday from lawmakers about the troubled performance of the state’s new health insurance marketplace.

Rep. Chris Pearson, a Burlington Progressive and member of the House Health Care Committee, questioned whether lawmakers were given sugarcoated answers in September when they asked if the system would be ready for an Oct. 1 launch.

“How am I supposed to have faith in the administration moving forward when we’re asking difficult questions and perhaps getting sugarcoated answers?” Pearson asked.

Commissioner Mark Larson of the Department of Vermont Health Access responded by saying that as of a Sept. 12 hearing before lawmakers, he knew there was much work to do but thought the state and its main vendor were on track.

Like similar efforts set up around the country under the federal health overhaul, Vermont’s marketplace, called Vermont Health Connect, has seen its website plagued by slow performance and errors when people try to sign into it and purchase different types of insurance offered by three vendors: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont, MVP HealthCare and Northeast Delta Dental.

In response to questions from committee members, Larson said the state had spent about $18 million on efforts to set up the website by its main contractor, Montreal-based CGI. Some $5.1 million of that could be recouped in penalties for missed deadlines and performance benchmarks, but since the money spent to date came from the federal government, any penalties paid likely would go back to Washington, he said.

Larson said while performance troubles continue for the website, it is working for some users. He said that as of Tuesday, more than 2,700 people successfully selected the insurance they wanted to buy.

“The site is live today,” he said.

Larson said he and other officials had expected that demand on the site would start slowly and then grow suddenly as a Jan. 1 deadline approached for people to sign up.

Citing the website’s performance problems, Gov. Peter Shumlin extended that deadline last week to March 31.

But some lawmakers, including Rep. Doug Gage, R-Rutland, questioned whether the system could handle the expected demand spike.

Larson also got questions about whether there had been security breaches on the system. He said his agency had investigated some complaints, but that they had proven false.