Acknowledging that a poorly functioning website was making it impossible to hit the state's enrollment goals, Gov. Peter Shumlin this afternoon announced he was extending the deadline for small businesses and individuals to sign up for Vermont Health Connect from Jan. 1 to March 31. In the meantime, they will be allowed to continue using their existing plans.
Additionally, Shumlin has deputized the two insurers offering plans in the market, Blue Cross Blue Shield Vermont and MVP Health Care, to act as "agents" of Vermont Heath Connect: Instead of signing up directly on the bug-ridden state website, businesses can sign up through the insurance companies, which will then register the plans with the exchange.
"These two additional options should give Vermonters going into the holiday season some (assurance) knowing there is no way they will lose insurance on January 1," Shumlin said during a press conference while standing in front of a phalanx of lawmakers, insurers and administration officials.
The announcement represents a dramatic reversal for the administration, which had been holding to the Jan. 1 deadline in the face of growing concerns about the website.
Thus far, only 10,480 consumers have created accounts, and 2,283 have successfully registered for the system. Only days ago, Shumlin said he hoped 70,000 would be registered by Jan. 1.
Shumlin also said his legal team has begun to study the state's contracts with the vendors building the websites to consider action to recover money for a contract that the governor said has not been fulfilled.
The announcement came following tests Wednesday night that officials hoped would show that problems with the website were fixed. Instead, the testing showed the site continued to come up short.
"I apologize for the problems we are having, I take full responsibility for them, I will continue to work to fix them," Shumlin said. "We will get this right."
In response to questions, Shumlin initially declined to address how MVP and Blue Cross would be compensated for extending for three months the current insurance plans — the plans they were offering in the new system came with higher premiums — and for having their employees step into the breach and help consumers register with the Vermont Health Connect.
"Halloween treats," Shumlin initially joked when asked about the insurers' compensation.
Shumlin declined to say when he believed the website would run smoothly, though he said the March 31 deadline left more than enough time to allow for everyone to register without hassle.
"I can't look you in the eye and tell you," Shumlin said.
Under plans announced Thursday, small businesses can continue to enroll through the website, with a paper application, or over the phone. Enrolling directly through Blue Cross and MVP is only an option.
Individuals and families can elect to keep their coverage through March 31, or enroll before that date.