Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access (DVHA), said Monday afternoon that, despite 11th-hour claims to the contrary, Vermont Health Connect is "prepared to go live tomorrow." That's when Vermont officially launches its new online health insurance exchange, the first step in the state's implementation of the federally mandated Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare."
Larson took time out of what is arguably his most stressful day of the year to respond to criticisms about the new online exchange leveled by Republican Randy Brock. On Sunday, the former Vermont auditor, state senator and GOP gubernatorial candidate published a scathing editorial on VT Digger likening Vermont Health Connect to The Wizard of Oz, all "smoke and mirrors, and behind the curtain there is no Wizard — there is only Peter Shumlin."
"The fact of the matter is this: The system doesn’t work," Brock charged.
Not so, according to Larson.
"I think the recent op-ed is unfortunate in that it tries to create concern about our ability to successfully launch Vermont Health Connect," Larson told Seven Days this afternoon. Contrary to Brock's claims, he said, Vermonters will still be able to go online, compare health insurance plans, sign up for an account and then select a plan that works for them. If Vermonters get that far in October, he added, they’ll be invoiced come November and be able to pay either electronically or by check.
The only service that won't be immediately available to Vermonters, Larson emphasized, is the ability to pay for an insurance plan that will take effect January 1. Earlier this month, DVHA announced that the payment function will be delayed by technical snafus until November 1.
But Larson pointed out that the number one comment he's heard from Vermonters is, "Who wants to pay for insurance in October that doesn't take effect until January?"
Larson also tried to lay to rest rumors that the Vermont Health Connect computer system won't be able to communicate with federal databases, such as those used by the Internal Revenue Service and the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services, to verify Vermonters' information. "That’s where the recent buzz is just not based on accurate information," he said. Larson insisted that DVHA has been granted authority to connect with the federal data hub, has tested that system and knows it works. "We are very confident in that piece."
What about Brock's claim that CGI Systems and Technologies, which is responsible for many of the critical IT systems at Vermont Health Connect, landed its contract without going through a competitive bid process?
As Larson explained, the state used what's called a "transitive procurement process." In laymen's terms, that means that when state A wants to buy a product or service very similar to one purchased by state B, state A can take advantage of the competitive bids state B used and accept the contracts it negotiated. Larson explained that process enabled Vermont to essentially buy the same product it would have purchased anyway but in a more streamlined way.
“There was a competitive bid process. It just wasn’t done by the state of Vermont," he added, noting that this procurement process has been used many times before in Vermont and is perfectly legal.
Finally, Larson said he was "generally aware" that other states have had problems with CGI but that wasn't sufficient cause for concern, as the global IT company is known locally as a "capable IT vendor."
Finally, when asked whether all the recent press reports about Vermont Health Connect not being ready to roll on Oct. 1 are, in the words of Gov. Peter Shumlin, a great big "nothing burger," Larson demurred, choosing a less colorful metaphor.
Vermonters, he said, will "judge us based on not just on our success tomorrow but how we continue to improve beyond there...It’s not a pass/fail on day one."
Image by Michael Tonn, from the cover of the 9.18.13 issue of Seven Days.