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Something-Burger: Health Care Delay Puts Shumlin on the Grill 

Fair Game

Near the end of last year’s snoozer of a reelection campaign, Gov. Peter Shumlin finally appeared in his first TV ad of the race.

“When you elected me governor, I said we’d get tough things done,” he said with a smile, alluding to the slogan he first deployed two years earlier.

It’s a message that has served Shumlin well as he’s navigated the state through the troubled waters of Tropical Storm Irene and the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis. A politician who earned a reputation as a slick legislative dealmaker, Shumlin successfully re-branded himself as a competent administrator who gets the job done.

But last Thursday, the accuracy of that message was called into question.

After six weeks of downplaying the severity of technical problems facing the state’s new health insurance web portal, Shumlin admitted at a Montpelier press conference that Vermont Health Connect wasn’t ready for primetime. What he’d dismissively referred to as a “nothing-burger” quite clearly had cooked into a “something-burger.”

A week after resisting calls to disclose his contingency plans, the governor said he would add three months to the deadline by which many individuals and small businesses must purchase health insurance policies through the exchange. In the interim, he said, those Vermonters could extend their existing coverage through March 31.

Further, small businesses struggling with the new web portal could instead purchase plans directly from Blue Cross Blue Shield Vermont and MVP, though doing so would limit their employees’ choice of plans. Left unsaid, and undecided, was how yearly out-of-pocket caps would translate to a three-month extension.

“You might ask the question, ‘Why now, governor?’” Shumlin said at the press conference. “The answer is simple: As governor, my job is at times to push — and at times I’ve got to be the one to take responsibility for where we are and chart a predictable course that doesn’t disrupt business and doesn’t disrupt individual Vermonters who desperately need health insurance. I apologize for the challenges that we’ve been having. I take full responsibility for them. I will continue to fix them.”

Asked exactly when the website’s problems would be solved, the governor demurred and revisited his campaign slogan.

“I’m gonna tell you something that I’ve learned — and even I can learn, believe it or not,” he said. “If I’ve learned one lesson as governor, with my enthusiasm to make change and get tough things done, it is this: Never give a date again.”

To be sure, Shumlin isn’t alone in his struggle to conform to the rigorous mandates of the federal Affordable Care Act. Throughout the country, governors and federal agencies alike are battling information technology contractors as they attempt to enroll millions of Americans in new health insurance plans on a tight schedule.

And in deciding to postpone Vermont’s enrollment deadline from December to March, Shumlin earned praise from nearly every quarter. Standing behind him at last Thursday’s press conference were legislative leaders, insurance company executives and, significantly, Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott.

“I was skeptical about whether we could complete it on time to sign people up,” Scott says. “When the governor decided to let people delay, I thought it was the right decision at the right time for the right reasons.”

Vermont Chamber of Commerce president Betsy Bishop agrees. Though her group opposed forcing small businesses to switch over to the new system, it has since been enlisted as a state-sponsored “navigator” organization, charged with helping businesses sign up.

“He made the right call,” Bishop says. “We needed to delay this mandate because, to date, we haven’t been able to get a single employee through the system — and when I say through the system, I mean to a point where you select a plan.”

But don’t let the momentary, collective sigh of relief fool you.

Shumlin’s ongoing struggle with Vermont Health Connect represents the biggest political crisis he’s faced since taking office nearly three years ago. Unlike his very public dustup with an aggrieved neighbor last spring, the governor’s inability to remedy Vermont Health Connect’s problems carries with it real-world implications for some 100,000 Vermonters.

This is way dodgier than Jerry Dodge.

Not only could it diminish his reputation as a competent administrator, it could threaten his credibility with the legislators, business leaders and voters he has spent weeks assuring that the system’s problems were surmountable. And if Vermonters lack confidence in Shumlin’s ability to build a website, why would they trust him to proceed with his signature goal: to design a near-universal, single-payer health care system?

“Here’s the big issue: We are hopefully on the path to real reform, and we’re going to be asking people to trust their political leaders in moving forward to those real reforms,” says Sen. Anthony Pollina (P-Washington), referring to Shumlin’s single-payer ambitions. “It’s going to be very difficult to maintain that trust if we undermine it at the start. And I’m a little bit afraid that’s what’s happening with Vermont Health Connect.”

Precisely what Shumlin knew about the system’s problems, and when he knew it, remains unclear. When his administration disclosed in September that the launch of the website’s payment processing function would be delayed a month — until November 1 — he publicly taunted a reporter for writing a story about it.

“I was amazed that we could make a headline out of that fact, to be honest with you,” the governor said at a press conference that month. “The fact of the matter is, that’s a nothing-burger.”

Asked last Friday by Vermont Public Radio’s Bob Kinzel when he knew his administration had a problem on its hands, the governor bobbed and weaved between two rather contradictory answers.

Noting that he’d warned Vermonters from the start “there’s going to be a lot of bumps in the road,” Shumlin said, “I can’t tell you I’m extraordinarily surprised.”

But asked again whether, by Labor Day, he knew there would be significant issues, the governor said, “No, I didn’t.”

“We did not know the magnitude of the challenges we were going to face interacting with the feds, all the other problems we’ve been having,” he continued. “Because we didn’t have the time to test [the system], we didn’t know what our problems were, to be absolutely honest with you.”

Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Mark Larson, whose office oversees the site’s development, says he didn’t see a delay in the cards until “early last week.”

“It started to become clear to me that the timeline of that becoming complete could require us to provide for the additional options that we announced Thursday,” says Larson, who maintains that there was no communication breakdown between DVHA and the governor’s office.

Randy Brock, the former Republican state senator and auditor who challenged Shumlin for governor last year, says he has a hard time believing that. Just days before the exchange’s October 1 launch, Brock submitted a heavily researched, 2500-word op-ed to VTDigger proclaiming that, “The fact of the matter is this: The system doesn’t work.”

Derided by Democrats back then, Brock’s op-ed now looks prescient.

“They had to be either naively hopeful or willfully blind, because the evidence was very strong, and the people inside who were close to the project were well aware of the failures of the site,” he says. “If it were as obvious as it was to me and to others outside the project, it’s very hard to believe those close to overseeing it couldn’t see what we saw.”

Behind the scenes, many legislators are fuming that they weren’t apprised of the system’s continuing problems — particularly those who are rooting for its success. And with many Vermonters now likely to be enrolling when the legislature reconvenes in January, you can expect trouble-making pols to give the administration plenty of headaches.

No doubt some will seek to further delay the deadline by which small businesses must switch over to the new system. Both Scott and Bishop are already agitating for it to be extended through the end of 2014.

“That’s what I would do, because that’s what’s happening in the 49 other states,” Scott says, arguing that a mid-year switch in health insurance policies could complicate matters for businesses and their employees.

Both Shumlin and Larson have said further delays are not in the cards.

Brock has also called for the creation of a “blue-ribbon commission” to investigate the failure. Meanwhile, his former de facto campaign manager, Darcie Johnston, who now runs Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, has declared that Shumlin should sack his top health care advisers, including Larson. Several Democratic legislators have said a more appropriate response would be for Doug Hoffer, the state auditor, to investigate the matter.

“We plan to look at a variety of health care subjects over time,” Hoffer says. “This will likely involve a combination of performance audits and non-audit inquiries.”

It remains to be seen exactly how Vermont Health Connect’s troubles will influence the debate over whether to pursue a more universal health care system, as Shumlin hopes to do by 2017. But some advocates are getting nervous.

“I think it feeds the flame of those who are opposed to reform,” says Andrea Cohen, executive director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. “Why give antis anything to complain about?”

One of those “antis,” Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), says that throughout the single-payer debate, political ideology has trumped practical considerations. For the first time, Vermonters are getting a sense of the real-world implications of health care reform.

“Now we’re all staring at something, realizing we all have skin in this game, where we didn’t think that before,” Benning says. “When the reality hits home that you have to make decisions based on this issue, suddenly it’s not ideology anymore.”

Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison), who chairs the Senate Health & Welfare Committee, stood with Shumlin at last Thursday’s press conference. She shares the concern expressed by Cohen and Pollina that Vermonters may grow wary of government-sponsored health insurance overhauls.

“But I don’t know that they’re going to change their minds that universal health care and everybody being part of the same system is a bad idea,” she cautions. “They’re just going to wonder about the government’s competency.”

And while Shumlin is surely in for an uncomfortable few months as his administration works to resolve its health care woes, one big thing is working in his favor: 364 days away from Election Day 2014, no top-tier opponents have emerged.

That leaves him bumming out, but not necessarily in immediate political danger.

“Yeah, this is a drag,” Shumlin told Kinzel last week. “I wish I wasn’t in this position. This is no fun for a governor. I take responsibility for it. I’m going to fix it. We’re going to get it done. We’re going to do it right.”

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Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

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Paul Heintz is Seven Days' political editor. He writes the weekly column, "Fair Game."

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