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

Review Of State's Digital Affairs Could Decide Future Of Vermont Health Connect

State officials say Vermont Health Connect has resolved many of its techincal issues
Screenshot of the Vermont Health Connect website
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The reemergence of a customer-service backlog on Vermont Health Connect earlier this month stoked legislative anxiety about the future of the online marketplace. On Wednesday, legislators decided to bring in an outside consultant to assess the program.

The Shumlin administration is hitting the reset button on a massive information technology overhaul at the Agency of Human Services. Administration officials say they’ll hire an outside consultant to conduct an extensive review of the state of digital affairs, and the assessment could also help determine the fate of Vermont Health Connect.

The reemergence of a customer-service backlog on the state’s health insurance exchange earlier this month has stoked legislative anxiety about the future of the online marketplace. And it reignited calls for the state to abandon the state-based exchange in favor of a federal version of the program.

On Wednesday morning, the House Committee on Health Care sought advice on how to proceed from an outside consultant.

“I think it would a fool’s errand to go to the federally facilitated marketplace, or to do something outside this box, until you have the information necessary to have confidence you’re making the right investment decision,” said Frank Petrus, a senior managing partner at Gartner Consulting.

Gartner has been hired to provide expert analysis of numerous state exchanges, including Vermont’s. Petrus says the root causes of the Vermont Health Connect problems are substantial. But he says the state has invested enormous sums in the $200 million program, and that those investments may yet yield a well-functioning program.

In the near term, Petrus offered this advice: “Minimize any further investment into Vermont Health Connect technology, as much as you can, to remediate it in a way that it can limp along for a little while longer while you do an assessment of what is the best way forward.”

"Minimize any further investment into Vermont Health Connect technology, as much as you can, to remediate it in a way that it can limp along for a little while longer while you do an assessment of what is the best way forward." — Frank Petrus, senior managing partner at Gartner Consulting

Lawrence Miller, chief of health care reform for the Shumlin administration, says the state plans to conduct the kind of assessment Petrus called for as soon as it gets Vermont Health Connect “stabilized.”

“And then stop, reset, figure out what this path forward given what we know now is, and so that’s why we we’ve cleared the deck for that,” Miller says.

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Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR
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VPR
Lawrence Miller, chief of health care reform for the Shumlin administration, seen here in Apr. 2014, says as officials get Vermont Health Connect “stabilized” they will pursue this type of assessment.

Dorset Rep. Patti Komline, a Republican, says the administration’s vested interest in seeing Vermont Health Connect succeed makes it a poor choice to oversee the review process. She also says she’s not sure Petrus is the best person for the Legislature to seek advice from, since his company has done contract work for the state in the past and is actively bidding on a request-for-proposal right now.

Komline  says the state needs to stop spending money on exchange studies.

“I think it is totally throwing good money after bad to continue on the path that we’re on,” Komline says.

Komline is instead pushing for a different tack.

“To decide we’re done, this is done. The date of death is today, and we’re going to move forward with something new,” Komline says. “But it has to be fresh people, fresh voices, not people who have been ingrained in what we’ve been doing all along.” 

"To decide we're done, this is done. The date of death is today, and we're going to move forward with something new. But it has to be fresh people, fresh voices, not people who have been ingrained in what we've been doing all along." — Rep. Patti Komline

But Miller says transitioning to the federal exchange could end up costing the state more than if it sticks with what it’s got. And he says the technology in place now, once fine-tuned, has the capacity to streamline and innovate operations across the agency.

Miller says the state will likely have to find some way to replace a $20 million component of the exchange that is no longer serving its purpose, in part because the company that built it went out of business.

But Miller says he’s confident the state can find a solution, and that the outside review will affirm the benefits of staying with Vermont Health Connect.

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