After reading the editorial Closed on Opening Day published in this paper last week, I feel obligated to respond. Though correcting misleading errors is important, what I first want to bring to your attention is how the critical rhetoric in recent editorials veers us away from concentrating on the purpose and value of the new Vermont Health Connect marketplace. On Jan. 1, tens of thousands of Vermonters will get help to make their health plans more affordable. Vermonters will also have more choice and understanding to allow them pick a health plan that reflects their personal needs and budget. This is life-changing for many and shouldn't be undermined by politics.
In regards to the editorial Closed on Opening Day, specifically, the most obvious correction required is that Vermont Health Connect is open, despite the assertion in the inaccurately written headline. The new health insurance marketplace (exchange) launched, as planned, on October 1st. In the first week of operation, over 40,000 individuals logged on to the site. Of those, over 2,900 have created new user accounts through which they can compare health coverage options, find out if they qualify for financial help to lower the cost of their health plan and enroll in a health plan that makes sense for them.
The editorial also charges that Vermont is overpaying for the building of Vermont Health Connect by comparing the cost of the contracts that Vermont and the federal government have with CGI, a technology company working to build both Vermont Health Connect and the health care exchanges being administered by the federal government in a number of states throughout the country. That comparison, while satisfying for opponents, is like comparing apples to air balloons.
In response to what the article suggests, it's important to clarify that the state's contract with CGI is not exclusive to building Vermont Health Connect. Vermont's contract includes other services such as an entire upgrade to an obsolete Agency of Human Resources' information technology system, which will make administering programs such as 3SquaresVT and heating assistance more efficient. By contrast, the federal government's contact is exclusive to the federal effort to build a health care exchange platform. Further, CGI is only one of about 45 contractors that are working to build that federal platform. The true cost of the federal government's efforts to build their health care exchange is about four and a half times the cost of Vermont's contract with CGI.
The editorial goes on to criticize the management of Vermont's technology contract with CGI to build Vermont Health Connect. Vermont's contract includes specific milestones, and, it is true, some of those milestones were not completed on time. Importantly, however, is the milestone that was completed on time: the launch of Vermont Health Connect on October 1st. What was omitted from the editorial is that Vermont continues to reserve the right to pursue financial damages on all missed deadlines and milestones. But we want to make sure we see the full and successful implementation of Vermont Health Connect before we assess appropriate penalties for missed deadlines. As with any project of this magnitude and complexity, there will be bumps along the way. But we are managing our contracts in such a way that have made and will continue to make Vermont Health Connect a success.
Health care reform in Vermont is based upon two indisputable facts: small businesses and families need help finding and affording good coverage, and the skyrocketing increases in health care expenses year after year could have a catastrophic impact on jobs and our economy. Everyone agrees that the status quo on health care is not acceptable. We're committed to implementing and improving Vermont Health Connect because it will provide coverage to thousands of Vermonters, freeing them from worrying about whether they will have insurance in the face of pre-existing conditions or a job loss.
We will always welcome a healthy debate on the merits of our efforts. But when that debate starts with a declaration of failure as the work is just beginning, it raises questions about the critics' true motivations. True success of Vermont Health Connect should be judged by whether Vermonters are provided the opportunity to compare plans, select a plan that works for them, secure financial help if they qualify, and have coverage effective Jan. 1, 2014. The stakes are high. Vermont cannot fall prey to the partisan game-playing that has Congress tied in knots, and we will not give in to those who may hope for Vermont's failure on this critical front.
Mark Larson is the commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access.