Gov. Peter Shumlin said Monday he's "hopeful" the state's ailing health insurance exchange will be able to process payments electronically by the end of November.
But citing his administration's inability to meet previous deadlines to fix that component of Vermont Health Connect, the governor declined to say when it would be fully functional.
"We're testing it right now, as you know. We're hopeful that those tests will continue to go very well," Shumlin said at a Montpelier press conference Monday afternoon. "As I've told you, I've learned a lesson as governor: I'll never say a date again. But I'm very hopeful that we'll have it up and running by the end of the month. That's my hope. I'm not promising. That's what we're working really hard to try and do."
The Shumlin administration has twice missed deadlines to launch the mechanism through which consumers can make online payments for their new health insurance plans. Officials have also encountered separate problems that have made it difficult for busineses and individuals to select plans in the first place.
In September, administration officials delayed implementation of the payment system from October 1 to November 1. As that second deadline loomed late last month, Shumlin kicked it down the road again and unveiled a contingency plan to ensure the delay does not cause Vermonters to lose coverage.
Asked whether his administration would have to come up with yet another contingency plan if the payment processing system isn't functional by the end of November, Shumlin said he hoped not.
"I'm hoping that I won't have to use any more additional options," he said.
Asked what such options would look like if they became necessary, Shumlin declined to elaborate.
"Well, just as I said to you last time, I want to be clear this time, because sometimes I read what is reported and I'm surprised," he said. "Last time you asked me this question, I said we always have other options. I wouldn't discuss them until or unless we needed them. But my job as governor is to have an answer to every single eventuality that could possibly occur — even the bleakest. Of course I'm going to do that until this thing is working perfectly."
Shumlin said he took exception to press coverage of his administration's handling of the troubled health insurance exchange. Some news stories, he alleged, made it appear as if he was off getting stoned in another state instead of fixing the website.
"I sometimes get the sense when I read the stories that I had on these rose-colored glasses — that I had been in Colorado or Washington state smoking something legal and I had no idea what was going on," he said. "You know, we're on top of it. It's not pleasant. It's not happy. I take full responsibility for where we are. But we have had contingencies when we've needed them and we will continue to until this thing is working perfectly. But we hope we don't need them."
Even as he declined to say when Vermont Health Connect would be fully functional, Shumlin declared that the site was working.
While visiting Northern Counties Health Care in St. Johnsbury on Saturday, he said, a Vermonter who had recently signed up for coverage told him, "'Governor, I wish when you talk about the challenges that you faced — and I understand you faced plenty of them — that you would tell people like me that it's working. I signed up and I'm mighty glad to have affordable health insurance. Because it seems like you're such a downer that a lot of us don't even go to the website anymore.'"
"I've told you we're going to fix this thing," Shumlin continued. "I've told you I'm responsible for the problems. All I can tell you is we are fixing it as we go. It's gonna happen in stages, not in one great rollout. Go and sign up. It's working."