State Takes Vermont Health Connect Website Offline

September 16, 2014

VTDigger

WINOOSKI — The Vermont Health Connect website was taken down Monday night and will remain offline to correct functionality problems and allow for improvements to data security, state officials said Tuesday.

Customers who need to report changes in income or make changes to their coverage or personal information will need to contact the customer service call center at 855-899-9600. Everyone with health insurance purchased through the exchange is still covered, officials said.

Officials did not say how long the state’s health insurance exchange website will be down. It could be weeks, not days, before Vermont Health Connect is back online.

Gov. Peter Shumlin acknowledged public frustration with the website at a hastily arranged press conference on Tuesday morning. The state is taking it offline for repairs, he said, and will relaunch it to ensure a smooth open enrollment period, which begins Nov. 15.

Gov. Peter Shumlin (left) and interim Secretary of the Agency of Human Services Harry Chen announced Tuesday that the Vermont Health Connect website will be offline for repairs. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger
Gov. Peter Shumlin (left) and interim Secretary of the Agency of Human Services Harry Chen announced Tuesday that the Vermont Health Connect website will be offline for repairs. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

“No one is more frustrated than me with the slow process we’ve had,” Shumlin said.
Harry Chen, the interim secretary of the Agency of Human Services, said the decision to take the website offline “wasn’t made lightly.”

State officials were adamant that the site was not taken down in response to a specific data breach or security threat. They emphasized the move was a “proactive step” to enhance security and improve the site’s usability.

Confidential consumer information was not compromised at any time, Chen said. The need for improved security is a response to changes in the online environment, according to Lawrence Miller, chief of the state’s health care reform efforts.

The decision was made over the weekend, Miller said, and was largely a response to warnings about increased security threats.

“We take the advice of our security experts, and when they see the environment changing from a threat perspective, we change to meet that threat,” Miller said.

“You’re careful not to create an attractive target,” he added.

The exchange is disconnected from the federal data hub, Miller said, and income-based subsidy eligibility determinations will be confirmed manually using other federal data sources.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services gave its blessing for the state’s decision. The federal government is bankrolling the project and continues to be a “close partner” in the project’s development, officials said.

POLICY CHOICES SPARK POLITICAL PUSHBACK

Vermont was the only state to require that insurance products for the individual market be sold through a state exchange.

Shumlin’s critics have consistently said that was a mistake, especially given the website’s poor performance.

Vermont was also the only state to require employers with 50 or fewer workers to purchase exchange products, however the website was never able to handle business customers. Shumlin allowed small companies to enroll directly with an insurer last year. The governor announced earlier this summer that direct enrollment will be available for employers this year as well.

Scott Milne, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, said that Vermonters would do well to remember the website’s failures in the November election.

“It keeps getting worse for Vermonters,” Milne said in a statement, “The catastrophic failure of Vermont Health Connect is putting Vermonters at risk.”

The statement said Milne will continue to meet with medical professionals as he develops a health care platform, and urged Shumlin to do likewise, but he did not articulate a course of action to remediate the exchange or reform health care in the state.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott issued a statement saying Vermont should transition to the “much simpler and fully functional” federal exchange that “27 other states have successfully used,” and pull the plug on a system that has “created very real problems for thousands of Vermonters.”

Scott’s opponent in the November election, Progressive candidate Dean Corren, said such calls are “cavalier” and ultimately not practical if Vermont wants to preserve state-sponsored subsidies offered through its exchange. Corren won a write-in campaign in the Democratic primary and will appear on the Democratic ballot.

Shumlin echoed Corren’s statement, saying it was his understanding that Vermont could not offer additional subsidies through the federal exchange.

Libertarian candidate Dan Feliciano, applauded Shumlin’s decision to take the site down. He said it was the right move to protect people’s personal information, which could have been exposed during remediation work.

Feliciano said the website should stay offline “permanently.” He believes Vermont should join the federal exchange.

“Health care is a technology business, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves,” he said. “I’m concerned that Vermont Health Connect will destroy people’s faith in the state providing technology solutions to further reduce costs and improve efficiency.”

At the news conference, Shumlin said a smooth open enrollment period will restore that faith.

“These actions are being taken so Vermonters will have faith in the system,” he said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., offered his support for Shumlin’s decision. In a statement, he called it a “critical step” toward getting the website to function properly.

Leahy said he is hopeful that by taking the website down, the problems can be addressed and operations can resume quickly.

MAINTENANCE PERIOD WON’T FIX MISSING COMPONENTS

None of the major functions that are still being developed will be launched when the website comes back online, Miller said.

The timeline for adding the missing elements, such as online changes to coverage and personal information or allowing small businesses to use the site has not changed. That functionality won’t be ready until next year.

Fewer people have been using the site in recent weeks, officials said, dampening the impact of taking it offline. Officials will closely monitor call center volumes and wait times to ensure that people are getting the help they need, Miller said.

Before the site was taken down there were 30 new applications and 750 transactions a week taking place online. State officials did not know how many unique visitors the website receives.

Miller said 20 percent to 25 percent of customers with commercial coverage were making premium payments online. Those customers will be contacted by the state, and told to make their payments by mail or through the call center.

Site users are expected to increase with open enrollment because current customers must renew coverage and new ones are expected to sign up.

HOW DOES VHC MEASURE UP?

Vermont has spent more than $100 million implementing the Affordable Care Act, and has a federal earmark of $171 million to complete the exchange.

Miller has said he expects the exchange project will take the full earmark to complete.

Kyle McDowell, a project manager for Optum — the state’s new primary tech contractor — said it’s “apples and oranges” to compare Vermont’s situation to other states.

Other states where Optum is doing remediation work have had some of the same problems as Vermont but each state faces “unique challenges,” McDowell said.

Miller said some states have had more success building exchanges, and other less, pointing out that several “gave up” and chose to go with the federal healthcare.gov website. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott has suggested that Vermont should do likewise.

NEW CHAIN OF COMMAND FOR VHC

Officials also announced changes to the management structure of Vermont Health Connect. Responsibility for the exchange will be removed from the Department of Vermont Health Access, Chen said.

Its management will be consolidated under a single chain of command with all contractors and state workers reporting to Miller, who will report to Chen.

The Health Access Eligibility Unit, which makes Medicaid and state subsidy determinations for exchange users, will be moved out of the Department for Children and Families and into the exchange’s new system.

Chen thanked DVHA commissioner Mark Larson for his work on Vermont Health Connect and said Larson will continue to work on “many other important tasks that (DVHA) has to accomplish.”

Larson, who stood off to the side during Tuesday’s press conference, was not asked to speak.

For much of its first year, Larson was the face of Vermont Health Connect. His role has been diminished since Shumlin brought in Miller.

Larson’s deputy commissioner, Lindsey Tucker, was recently transitioned out of her leadership role within Vermont Health Connect. The two were previously the top state officials managing the exchange.

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 6:17 p.m. Tuesday.