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Editorial: Radical Reconstruction; Shumlin Opts for Damage Control

If Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin has a political liability, it is the longstanding perception that he’s a little too slick for his own good. The governor can now rest assured that he’s made substantial progress in altering that image: His handling of the controversy surrounding the launch of the Vermont health exchange — the online health insurance marketplace required by the federal Affordable Care Act — has been anything but polished.

Vermont is among the minority of states that designed its own health exchange. Its website, like those in other states that took the customization option, has generally performed better than the federal one. Of course, that isn’t saying much. Indeed, Vermont Health Connect has been plagued by all sorts of problems, ranging from annoyances, such as slowness, to serious malfunctions, including a security breach and an inability to make the site’s online payment system function properly.

The governor has not disputed the fact that the performance of the exchange has been less than stellar — particularly considering that the state has committed to paying tens of millions to CGI Technologies to get it running. He has followed the Obama model of declaring his frustration and disappointment.

But for some strange reason, Shumlin is now insisting that Vermonters shouldn’t have been surprised by the website’s poor performance. His administration had given residents fair warning to lower their expectations, he said at a news conference last week, and cited a July 8 news story published the Burlington Free Press as evidence. That story quoted Shumlin as predicting that the website would be quite basic when it started operating Oct. 1 and would not be fully developed until the beginning of 2014.

Perhaps Shumlin’s desire to reconstruct events isn’t that strange: It closely followed news reports that a consulting firm overseeing the CGI contract had warned his administration about serious problems with the exchange as far back as May. But a vague warning issued via a newspaper story hardly qualifies as adequate warning about a dysfunctional website, nor does it absolve the administration of responsibility. Without going into detail about the wide gap between the seriousness of the alarms issued by the consulting firm and what Shumlin happened to convey through that one news story, it is enough to point out that the message from the Shumlin administration prior to the launch was otherwise consistent and clear: We know how important a successful rollout is, we learned from the mistakes made when the Catamount insurance program was launched, we’ve got adequate resources and ... we’ve got this under control.

Typical was the assurance offered by Mark Larson, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health Access, at a Valley News editorial board meeting on July 9 — a couple months after the administration began receiving warnings. “We’re well on our way to be ready for Oct. 1, and part of our attention has really switched to how do we help Vermonters be ready to use Vermont Health Connect,” Larson said. The challenge, in other words, was undertaking an adequate public information campaign, not getting the exchange itself functioning properly.

We have little doubt that the administration eventually will get this right. It is not an insoluble problem, and it has plenty of political and popular support. That said, no amount of historical revisionism will paper over its shortcomings thus far. Shumlin can complain all he wants to, as he did at the news conference, about those who want to “beat up the past,” but there’s no more egregious form of beating up the past than rewriting it to your own advantage and raising questions about your readiness to learn from it.