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Vermont health overhaul chief: Exchange cost pushes $200 million

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MONTPELIER, Vermont — As the state's health care reform chief was about to address lawmakers Tuesday on Vermont's trouble-plagued health insurance exchange, his computer presentation couldn't get started.

"Once again, we're talking about Vermont Health Connect, so we're having technical issues," joked Lawrence Miller, health care reform chief for the administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin.

The brief holdup was far less severe than the issues dogging the state's health insurance exchange since its launch in October of 2013. Miller's main mission Tuesday morning was to affix an updated price tag to a system still lacking key pieces that would make it fully functional.

As of Dec. 31, the state had spent more than $126 million of federal dollars on Vermont Health Connect; by the end of this year, it's expected to spend $72 million more, Miller said.

Meanwhile the promise that consumers would be able to go on the Vermont Health Connect website and file a "change of circumstance" when they switch jobs, have a child, get married or divorced and the like has not been met. Currently, consumers have to call and talk to Vermont Health Connect staff members, who record the changes manually.

State officials say they believe they'll have that problem fixed by the end of May.

But Miller was much less definitive about when another big problem with the website will be corrected: its inability to allow enrollment by small businesses that were originally have supposed to sign up by January of 2014.

That was the start date for businesses with up to 50 employees; in the interim, they've been signing up directly with the two insurance carriers offering coverage through the exchange, Blue Cross Blue Shield and MVP Health Care. Miller made clear that those small businesses still won't be able to sign up during the traditional open enrollment period in late fall.

Meanwhile, a state law passed in 2011 says the next larger block of businesses — those with between 50 and 100 employees — are supposed to be able to sign up through the website beginning next year.

Miller appeared to leave open the possibility that if funds run short, businesses may never sign up through the Vermont Health Connect website, and instead continue dealing directly with Blue Cross and MPV.

Rep. Peter Fagan, R-Rutland, pressed him on whether there would be enough money to get businesses signed up.

"If we were out of funding then we would not be finishing that work," Miller said.

Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, a group that was supportive of the state exchange as it was being set up in 2013, said in an interview after the hearing that the state's businesses had grown "incredibly frustrated" with the continuing inoperability of the website.

She reiterated a longstanding objection the Chamber has had: that Vermont is the only state that mandates businesses get their health insurance through the state exchange.

"We are mandated to use this," Bishop said. "They have closed the private market. They are adding another 1,000 businesses next year, and it still doesn't work."

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