WINOOSKI, Vt. (AP) — Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin had said there would be “bumps in the road” as the state launched its new Vermont Health Connect health insurance marketplace, and its launch Tuesday proved him right.
The much anticipated opening of the new government-run health insurance exchange, Vermont’s version of state efforts being rolled out nationwide to comply with the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), was greeted almost immediately after its 9 a.m. opening with complaints that consumers couldn’t get its webpages to open and work properly.
“Overnight they sent us our numbers and passwords so we could log in and set up our navigator accounts,” said Peter Youngbaer, executive director of the People’s Health and Wellness Clinic in Barre, which provides health care to uninsured Vermonters and which has received a grant to be a “navigator” organization, guiding people on using Vermont Health Connect.
“That function did not work,” he added. “The website was off or not available.”
Similar frustration was heard around Vermont, as state officials continued to express confidence that the bugs would be worked out well in advance of Jan. 1, when the health insurance products that went on sale Tuesday take effect.
Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access, which is leading implementation of Vermont Health Connect, told reporters Tuesday that the launch of the system was “a step in a marathon — this is not a sprint.”
The program’s website was projected to be the main way consumers interacted with Vermont Health Connect. It was designed to allow about 100,000 Vermonters who fall into certain categories — those who buy health insurance themselves or get it from employers with fewer than 50 employees — to compare prices and service offerings for the health insurance products of two companies: Blue Cross Blue Shield and MVP Health Care. It was also designed to tell people if they were eligible for a newly expanded Medicaid program, or for federal tax credit subsidies to help them pay for private insurance.
Despite the technical difficulties with the website Tuesday, some people were able to set up accounts. Emily Yahr, spokeswoman for Vermont Health Connect, said that as of 4 p.m., about there had been about 8,500 different visitors to the website. About 330 people had successfully set up accounts, she said.
Officials had said earlier that they expected many of the visits would be by people who were merely curious or were browsing, but were not ready to make a decision about which health plan to buy.
As for those who couldn’t get on the website because it wouldn’t open before their computers’ browsers timed out, Larson said, “We hope people will keep trying because we believe this is an issue we can address quickly.”
A prominent critic of PPACA and of Vermont’s efforts to implement it said after the news conference that she was not impressed. “They’ve said that they’re on track,” said Darcie Johnston, head of the group Vermonters for Health Care Freedom. “All we can see is that we’re tied to the track.”
Peter Sterling of the Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security, which supports the changes, said the goals of the federal and state health overhaul — getting affordable health care to a larger number of people, especially lower-income people, remain well in sight.