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Shumlin Defends Web Rollout

Governor Says Rocky Start Expected

Gov. Peter Shumlin said this week that he and his administration gave Vermonters fair warning about potential problems with Vermont Health Connect and have handled them accordingly.

Amid published reports that traced alarm bells about Vermont Health Connect back to May, Shumlin at a news conference sought to ward off any impression that his administration has been less than forthcoming about bumps in the road during the development and rollout of the state’s new health insurance marketplace.

Vermont Public Radio this week reported that Department of Vermont Health Access officials received consistent warnings, dating back to May, that cast doubt on the feasibility of an Oct. 1 launch. Previous news reports had pointed to warnings that were issued to the administration in September.

At a news conference Wednesday, reporters asked Shumlin whether he’d been privy to those warnings, and to what extent he knew about the severity of the problems.

“There’s nothing in any of those reports that’s startling to me,” he said. “It’s basically what my team communicated to me.”

Asked whether he’d read the reports himself, Shumlin scoffed at the notion.

“Governors don’t read those reports. I don’t have the time in the day to sit there and obviously wade through every single report when we are building one of the most complex websites that health care has ever integrated and delivered,” he said.

The reports in question are the work of Gartner Consulting, a Connecticut-based firm that the administration hired to oversee its contract (which currently stands at $84 million) with CGI Technologies and Solutions — the contractor charged with creating Vermont Health Connect.

“What I do ask my team to do,” Shumlin said, “is to tell me whether we are going to make it, and what the website will look like when we get there and I was very transparent about that.”

His administration delivered the product, as promised, on the date required under federal law, Shumlin said.

“The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “We were up and running on October 1.”

The governor arrived at Wednesday’s news conference armed with another piece of “proof” to demonstrate that he had done due diligence in tempering the public’s expectations about the launch.

Shumlin read an excerpt from a July 8 Burlington Free Press story: “Monday Shumlin assured the gathering ‘that by Oct. 1, Vermont will have a simple website to go to where you can get very good information about affordable health care.’ Then, however, he weakened the promise by saying, ‘On Oct. 1, we are going to be up and running — we hope.’ And his description of the new online marketplace switched from simple, which could be interpreted as easy to use, to ‘barebones,’ which suggests plywood with floors to come later. Shumlin reinforced that second interpretation when he said the bells and whistles would be added in January.”

Shumlin repeatedly praised the website Wednesday, describing it as “one of the two or three best functioning websites in the country.”

He bristled when asked whether it was accurate to describe it in those terms, given that the payment function for small businesses still doesn’t work.

“If you all want to continue to beat up the past, we can do that till the chickens come home, and there’s plenty to beat up,” he said.

The governor has taken flak for dismissing that problem, in early October, as a “nothing-burger.”

Asked if he regretted not having unveiled his contingency plans — one month after the site’s sputtering start, Shumlin offered the option of extending 2013 coverage for three months and he allowed businesses to sign up directly with a carrier — the governor said no.

“I don’t know how to describe this except to say I work pretty much 24/7 — you know we’re working hard here — and I don’t have time for regrets,” he said.

Shumlin described the website problems as inevitable given a tight federally mandated timeline of Oct. 1, and he said that the lurching rollout was expected.

“We understood this summer we were going to have the website up and running by Oct 1 … that it would be functioning and working and we would have more work to do. And that’s exactly what happened,” he said.

During a Vermont Public Radio show Nov. 1, shortly after he offered his contingency plan, Shumlin sounded more surprised by the scope of the problems.

He told reporter Bob Kinzel: “We did not know the magnitude of the challenges we were going to face, interfacing with the feds, and all the other problems we’ve been having. Frankly, in most Web launches you don’t really know the problems until you get there.”

The starkly worded warnings from Gartner were intended to help the administration identify problems that were subsequently addressed, according to Shumlin.