Were the state officials behind Vermont's beleaguered health care overhaul a bunch of unsophisticated local yokels who were taken for a ride by an unscrupulous global contractor?
That's the portrait veteran reporter Lynnley Browning painted in a devastating, 3,400-word takedown published last Thursday in Newsweek, called "Doubling Down on Obamacare."
As state officials rushed to meet an October 2013 deadline to launch a new, online health insurance marketplace, Browning wrote, they "glossed over ominous warning signs and Keystone Cops-like planning." While some Vermont officials worried that contractor CGI Technologies and Solutions might not deliver a working website on time, she wrote, "others were fooled into believing things were going well."
The story was brutal. But was it accurate?
Gov. Peter Shumlin's administration sure didn't think so. At a Burlington press conference Friday morning, the gov himself said he hadn't read the story, but the man he appointed to build Vermont Health Connect quickly went into overdrive to debunk it.
"I think there are pieces of the story which are just not factually true and other places where the reporter raises inflammatory speculation, but without any basis in reality," Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson said later that day. "It makes for an interesting story, but I'm not sure it's an accurate story."
On Monday, Larson sent Newsweek a lengthy rebuttal, highlighting eight sections of the article he labeled as everything from "purely speculative and backed up by no evidence" to "simply not true."
But Newsweek doubled down on "Doubling Down."
"We completely stand by the story and are utterly confident about our sources," editor-in-chief Jim Impoco said in an email. "If there are any errors of fact we will gladly correct them. We too thought it was a wonderfully incendiary story."
So was this just another catfight between journalists and the Shumlin administration over who's to blame for a something-burger of a botched government IT project?
Not according to Charlotte resident and Washington, D.C. lawyer Brady Toensing, who serves as vice chairman of the Vermont Republican Party. The Newsweek story prompted Toensing to question whether CGI had defrauded the state of Vermont — and whether the Shumlin administration bothered to look into the matter.
"Vermont officials appear strangely incurious about the serious allegations that a major vendor may have conducted a fraudulent demonstration of an incredibly expensive and important software system that ultimately and utterly failed to perform as promised," Toensing said in an email. "These allegations need to be fully and formally investigated by a neutral entity."
By "fraudulent demonstration," Toensing was referring to the most damning anecdote in the Newsweek story:
As Browning described it, a group of state employees gathered in a Winooski conference room "on a warm day last July" to "witness a milestone: the first demonstration of their state's new health insurance exchange under President Obama's historic health insurance plan."
According to a CGI document describing the event — which Newsweek quoted and Seven Days later obtained — company officials hoped to demonstrate "a live interface with the Federal Data Hub," which verifies income tax data, citizenship and other federal records for state exchanges. The preview would "provide an early view of the functionality — not a finished product," the document said.
But according to an unnamed source Browning described only as "a person familiar with the event," "a lot was left to the imagination" at the demonstration.
"Some state staffers that July 26 thought it showed 'live' registrations and enrollments by hypothetical consumers, when in fact static premade screens were displayed," Browning wrote.
"People weren't technologically sophisticated enough to understand what was actually going on," she quoted her source as saying.
Though Larson told Browning he believed the demonstration "involved sending and receiving information with the federal data hub and showed the eligibility determination of a hypothetical customer," Browning intimated in her story that the exchange had not, in fact, connected to the hub.
"The source familiar with the event says 'the system was in no way operable' during that demonstration," she wrote.
That's a pretty serious claim.
While much of Browning's story rehashed what's already been reported, Newsweek appeared to be claiming that CGI willfully deceived the state in order to protect its contracts with Vermont, valued at $84 million. That's, like, way illegal.
CGI spokeswoman Linda Odorisio declined to address Newsweek's charges directly, but in a statement to Seven Days said that Vermont "is leading the nation" in signing up consumers for the federally mandated health exchange.
"With enrollments continuing to rise, CGI remains fully committed to delivering the robust functionality desired for Vermonters by Vermont Health Connect, now and in the future," Odorisio wrote.
Larson, meanwhile, disputed Browning's account of the presentation, saying, "I believe it was a real demonstration of our connection to the federal data hub."
Robin Lunge, Shumlin's director of health care reform — who, like Larson, did not attend the July 26 event — agreed. She said that while the administration was "disappointed with the fact that [CGI] missed deadlines," she assumes the company "operated in good faith."
"I don't know that I would call it deceptive — certainly disappointing," she said of CGI's work.
If Browning had a thing or two to say about state officials' competence and CGI's trustworthiness, Larson had a thing or two to say about Browning's reporting methods.
"None of [her] questions gave an opportunity to respond to the accusation of the story," he said. "There was never a question like, 'Do you feel like the demonstration on [July] 26th was faked?'"
Larson forwarded Seven Days copies of his correspondence with Browning, which took place over email between January 30 and February 4. It's true that the reporter did not specifically ask whether Larson thought the demonstration was "faked," but she did attempt to clarify what happened that day.
It's also clear that Browning called and emailed state officials for more than a week before they got back to her — a common experience when dealing with the tight-lipped Shumlin administration. (Case in point: Shumlin said last Friday that he'd get back to reporters once he'd read the Newsweek story, but his spokeswoman, Sue Allen, hasn't returned Seven Days' emails since.)
As for the underlying allegations, Larson provided Seven Days a copy of a Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services report he says proves that Vermont Health Connect was, in fact, able to connect with the federal data hub last summer. The report shows that just two days before the July demonstration, Vermont's exchange passed several CMS tests of its ability to verify annual household income with the feds.
Whether or not Vermont Health Connect was able to communicate with the data hub that July day, Browning's source wasn't the only one disappointed by CGI's demonstration. Another attendee who contacted Seven Days said that while the meeting was "pumped up" as a big reveal, it left that person wondering whether the exchange would be functional by October.
"It was kind of clear to people there that they couldn't get it together in time and that they fell short of the expectations of the meeting," that person said on the condition of anonymity. The July meeting was attended by both state workers and government contractors.
Throughout the summer and fall, the source said, the writing was on the wall that Vermont Health Connect was perilously behind schedule — thanks to an unrealistic, federally mandated deadline and poor leadership within state government.
"CGI was mismanaged, left and right. And they took advantage of the state," the individual said. "This thing was a running train wreck for months. All of us knew how far behind we were."
That message was driven home in late September, four days before Vermont Health Connect's scheduled launch. That day, a group of 20 people working on the exchange gathered in a conference room to run one final test of the program's individual components.
"Before you knew it, there were delays. We cleared our calendars and said, 'Oh shit, this thing is riddled with errors,'" said the source, who took part in the meeting. "Everybody in the room was saying, 'We can't go live. This thing is not ready for prime time.'"
But four days later it did go live.
Asked if he had been warned at the last minute that the system wasn't ready, Larson said, "We knew going into it that there were issues that had to be addressed, but the functionality was there."
According to Browning, state officials contemplated delaying the launch by a month, to November 1, but Larson said the federal deadline left little wiggle room.
"We reviewed options throughout that time, all the way to the end," Larson said. "But the decision was made, and I agreed to it that starting October 1 is what we were supposed to do."
Is all of this just water under the bridge? That's what Lunge thinks.
"My reaction is that the Newsweek story is re-litigating issues related to the launch, which the Vermont press corps, quite frankly, has delved into quite deeply," she said.
As for why Newsweek picked up on the story, Larson noted that the data hub issue has long been an obsession of Shumlin's 2012 Republican gubernatorial opponent, Randy Brock, and of Brock's de facto campaign manager, Darcie Johnston, who runs Vermonters for Health Care Freedom.
"I think that Darcie Johnston and Randy Brock have been consistent about raising this connection about the federal data hub, and that is a very important component of the entire speculation of the Newsweek article," Larson said.
Indeed, Brock was the first to write about the July 26 meeting — asking in a September 29 VTDigger op-ed whether the demonstration was "misleading." Johnston, meanwhile, sent a fundraising email Monday to VHCF members saying that, "material we have collected through public records requests" was "critical [to] the recently published Newsweek article..."
According to Brock, after Browning contacted him, he "provided her with documents [he] obtained through Vermont's Open Records Act," just as he has other media outlets.
"I am sorry that the administration seems to want to criticize members of the media and me for accessing documents that are embarrassing," Brock said.
Regardless of his political motivations — he hasn't said whether he'll challenge Shumlin again this November — Brock is right to raise questions. And regardless of whether Browning's story was a hack job or Pulitzer material, it's a relief to see a national news outlet helicoptering in to cover the mess.
Because, contrary to Lunge's flattering assertion, the Vermont press corps still hasn't done a very good job of getting to the bottom of the Vermont Health disconnect. We still don't have a proper understanding of why the system's deployment went so badly, and why it took so long for Shumlin to admit and rectify the problem.
This isn't water under the bridge. As Larson himself readily admits, it's still impossible to pay premiums online, edit information in existing Vermont Health Connect applications and enroll as a small business. Larson says he still doesn't know when all three functions will work properly.
And the ramifications go far beyond Vermont Health Connect. Just last week, the Agency of Human Services went back to the drawing board after only CGI bid on a $100 million, comprehensive new IT contract to bring together the agency's disparate systems.
"It was the opinion of all of us who were working on this project that that was not the right way to go," AHS Secretary Doug Racine told Vermont Public Radio. "CGI obviously had performance issues."
No doubt that's the case. But the bigger question is whether state government, too, had performance issues — and what it plans to do about them.
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