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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Did Exchange Contractor Mislead State Officials?

Vermont's health care exchange, Vermont Health Connect, has been in the news regularly since its October launch because of continued technological failures and shortfalls.

Officials say there's one major problem with Newsweek's story: It's not true.

But a scathing story last Friday from Newsweek ratcheted up the intrigue. The piece featured an accusation from an unnamed tipster, who came out with a striking allegation against CGI, the tech firm hired to build the exchange.

The article cited an anonymous source who said CGI willfully deceived state officials by faking a demonstration last July that purportedly showed the site’s connection with a federal data hub used to verify citizenship and tax data for online health care exchanges.

It was a serious claim, one that cast the contractor in a new and sinister light. But the Shumlin administration says there’s one major problem with the Newsweek story: It’s not true.

Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access, says a 38-page document [PDF] he released in the wake of the Newsweek story disproves the allegation.

“The document that I provided demonstrated that CMS was satisfied with our connection with the federal data hub, and we have received authorization to receive information from the federal data hub because of the work that we did in the testings,” Larson says.

The document shows that federal officials confirmed the existence of a connection with the federal data hub last summer, and that the connection occurred around the time when the demonstration occurred. 

Newsweek says it stands by its story, and Larson's assurances have hardly silenced the exchange's detractors.

Newsweek says it stands by its story, and Larson’s assurances have hardly silenced the exchange’s detractors. 

Randy Brock was the Republican gubernatorial candidate in the 2012 election, which he lost to to Democratic incumbent Gov. Peter Shumlin. Brock provided Newsweek with much of the information contained in the Newsweek story. He says Larson’s document proves nothing.

“Well, despite what Commissioner Larson says, the federal test report suggests to me that it reinforces Newsweek’s claims,” Brock says.

Brock says the connection affirmed in the document wasn’t with Vermont Health Connect, but with a more rudimentary cog in the state’s technology infrastructure.

Larson says he hopes Vermonters aren’t buying what Brock and Newsweek are selling, and says ultimate proof for the state’s version of events lies in the fact that the connection with the federal data hub was running smoothly when Vermont Health Connect launched on Oct. 1.

"The reality is since Oct. 1, Vermonters have been applying for coverage with the benefit of our connection to the federal data hub." - Mark Larson

“The reality is since Oct. 1, Vermonters have been applying for coverage with the benefit of our connection to the federal data hub,” Larson says.

Brock says the existence of a connection now doesn’t mitigate the harm that was done if CGI faked the demonstration last July 26. He’s calling for an independent probe of the matter.

“When people are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money, it’s important to have confidence that they’re telling us the truth,” Brock says. “And that’s why we need to find out the answers to those questions.”

Shumlin this week said he stands by Larson’s refutation of the Newsweek story. And he noted that the state has already announced it will commission an independent review of the troubled rollout of the exchange. 

Larson says he understands public frustration with glitches on the exchange, but says the website has improved vastly since October. The site still can’t fully accommodate small businesses or accept online payment, but Larson says individuals are successfully signing up, and many of them are getting significant federal assistance for insurance plans sold on the exchange. 

Larson says consumers who are still struggling with the exchange now have ready access to help. Wait times on the Vermont Health Connect toll free help line were at one point up to two hours long. Last week, according to Larson, average wait times were 28 seconds.

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