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Editorial: This Does Not Compute: Vermont Health Website’s Woes Persist

What does $72 million get you these days? In Vermont, it has so far bought a poorly working website for Vermont Health Connect, the online health insurance marketplace mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

The website’s problems when it was first rolled out last fall have been well documented, but nine months later key aspects are still not functioning or are functioning poorly.

For example, users are still unable to correct mistakes they made in entering information online and cannot use the website to make changes in their coverage to reflect changed life circumstances. Corrections or changes have to be made through a call center, a process that can take hours in the best of circumstances and days or weeks in the worst. Currently there is a backlog of 14,000 corrections or changes waiting to be resolved.

Equally troubling is a problem that came to light at a legislative hearing in Montpelier last week. An estimated 22,000 Medicaid recipients who were enrolled in the program before the debut of Vermont Health Connect have lost coverage in the past three months because they failed to complete their annual eligibility review as required. These low-income people formerly received a paper form to complete and mail back, and now are expected to go onto the Health Connect website to renew coverage. It seems to have occurred to no one in state government that they might have trouble doing so, or that they might not have heeded a notice that they were now required to use a computer. Vermont has received permission to reinstate those who lost coverage as a result of making an error in entering their information, but it’s anybody’s guess whether those recipients will seek medical treatment if they believe they have lost coverage.

Rep. Mike Fisher, chairman of the House Health Care Committee, seemed appropriately alarmed by the discouraging news. “It’s just untenable to be in this situation,” said Fisher, D-Lincoln. More alarming still were the comments of Lawrence Miller, chief of health care reform for the state, who said, “There’s been a lot of work done and no evident progress for consumers.”

A day later, Gov. Peter Shumlin chimed in, calling the situation unacceptable and taking responsibility for fixing it, although he ruled out making changes in leadership at Vermont Health Connect, something the state Republican Party has called upon him to do. One key question that needs to be answered is whether the state has made sufficient effort to hold accountable its primary vendor, CGI, a Canadian technology firm to which Vermont has already paid $52 million on an $84 million contract, all of it federal money earmarked to set up the exchange. Vermont has imposed $5 million in penalties to date on CGI as a result of missed deadlines, but that so far appears inadequate. Is changing vendors an option?

Shumlin needs to resolve these problems quickly and cleanly, as he surely must know. Every day that they persist casts a bigger shadow over the administration’s plans to enact and implement a single-payer health insurance system in Vermont by 2017. The politics and financing of this effort will be a huge challenge, but no more so than the technical difficulties involved. The public already suspects that in general, government in the United States can’t get out of its own way, and before Vermont takes its great leap into the health-care unknown, the Shumlin administration needs to rebuild confidence in its competence.