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home : news : regional August 1, 2014

9/30/2013 7:20:00 AM
Vt. Readies For Health Insurance Exchange Launch

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) -- State workers are getting ready to roll out the biggest change in health care coverage in Vermont's history.

Tuesday is the official startup date for Vermont Health Connect, the state-sponsored health insurance marketplace being set up under the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

About 100,000 Vermonters are expected to participate in the first phase of the exchange's development. Those participants include people who purchase their own individual or family health coverage and those who have received employer-sponsored coverage from companies with 50 or fewer employees. Coverage begins Jan. 1.

Participants are expected to include lower-income and middle-class people who had been getting coverage under the state-subsidized Catamount Health plan and Vermont Health Access Plan. Most of those in VHAP are expected to be eligible for Medicaid, which will be expanded under the federal health law.

While many states have balked at the 2010 law's requirements, Vermont's political leadership has enthusiastically supported it. They see it as a step toward the state's even more aggressive goal of universal publicly funded health coverage beginning in 2017.

"We're still working very hard to make sure that everything is ready for next Tuesday," said Mark Larson, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health Access. "We fully expect that to be the case."

One glitch has come to light so far: Vermont Health Connect's system for collecting premiums won't start running until Nov. 1. Residents can shop for the health plan they want through the exchange but won't be expected to pay for it until December.

Go Green

Larson said residents had expressed surprise that they might have to pay in October for coverage that becomes effective in January, and the date was pushed back in part to meet with consumer expectations.

The exchange will allow people to directly compare the offerings of the two major private health insurance providers in Vermont: Blue Cross Blue Shield and MVP Healthcare. Plans will be rated bronze, silver, gold and platinum, with bronze plans offering lower premiums but higher co-pays and deductibles and platinum plans offering higher premiums but lower co-pays and deductibles. The gold and silver plans offer intermediate options.

Kevin Goddard, vice president for external affairs and sales at Blue Cross, expressed confidence that the state will be ready to roll out its systems to consumers. People can go online to Vermont Health Connect, phone a call center or work with one of about 300 navigators to learn about their options.

But, Goddard says, he is concerned about how well the state's computer systems will perform when residents begin enrolling.

"It's a major IT (information technology) project, one of the biggest ever," he said. "It'll be something to watch over the next month."

For state Rep. Mike Fisher, the biggest worry is confusion and misinformation among the public about the changes. The Democrat from Bristol is chairman of the House Health Care Committee and was a key author of the 2011 legislation setting up the state exchange and making it a key building block for the universal health plan.

He said constituents have told him they will end up paying more for less coverage, but their fears are usually unfounded.

"They come and say they are really harmed in the exchange," Fisher said. "And when I sit down with them and look at the details of what's available to them, a vast majority of those people say, 'Wow, that's pretty familiar. I'm used to that."

But MVP officials say they've been getting ready for the new system since the law passed in 2010.

"From our perspective, we're ready for a smooth transition," said MVP Vermont Vice President Bill Little. "The other part of that is, Is the state ready? Are the feds ready? We're not the only player."

A poll commissioned by Vermont Health Connect found that as of late August, only 43 percent of Vermonters had heard of the new exchange and fewer than half of those people understood how it would work.

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