Starksboro man irked with health care website

STARKSBORO — The struggles of a Starksboro man in trying to navigate the Vermont Health Connect website are a snapshot of what the Shumlin administration faces while implementing the state’s new health care platform.

Jeff Keeney first attempted to sign up for health insurance for his family in early November, and he still hasn’t been able to complete his application. Exasperated, he fired off an email to Gov. Shumlin last week and copied a number of local lawmakers.

“It is extremely frustrating — up until I sent this email I didn’t get a response,” Keeney said.

Vermont Health Connect is the state’s incarnation of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature piece of domestic legislation. The ACA, which is colloquially known as “Obamacare,” mandates that individual states must have online health insurance markets.

About 100,000 Vermonters, or about 16 percent of the population, are expected to enroll in the program.

The Vermont Health Connect website went live Oct. 1 for people to examine the plans. On Nov. 1, individuals and businesses could start signing up. After glitches and multiple security breaches, Gov. Shumlin delayed the deadline to register for insurance from January to March.

Still, problems persist.

Keeney, 56, is a self-employed civil engineer. Since he does not get insurance through an employer, he plans to enroll himself, his wife and his son in their own plan. Keeney started the process of enrolling in early November. He began his online application Dec. 5, but could not find where to add his wife and son onto his plan. He then called the Vermont Health Connect help line. After a one-hour wait, Kenney said the customer service representative took down his information and said it would take up to 10 days to update his application.

“I called back today after 11 days, waited on hold for two and a half hours (…) to find that no changed had been made,” Keeney wrote to Gov. Shumlin on Dec. 16.

Keeney added that the representative he spoke with this time around said someone would call him back when the application had been updated.

At wit’s end, Keeney wrote the email to the governor and legislators.

“My request to add someone should have been fixed on the spot not taken weeks to do something that should take minutes,” Keeney wrote. “I am used to government inefficiencies and bungling however this is at a scale of epic proportions.”

After receiving Keeney’s letter, Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, reached out on the Starksboro man’s behalf. Kenney resides in Fisher’s district, and Fisher is chair of the House Health Care Committee, which played a large role in the state’s medical insurance overhaul.

“I just expressed my frustration to the commissioner’s office about Jeff and his situation, and it got fixed pretty quick,” Fisher said. “There’s been a backlog of about 2,000 people who’ve had similar change of circumstance situations that are getting through pretty quickly.”

But despite Fisher’s efforts, Keeney soon found out his problems were not over. When he tried to finish the application later in the week, he found his 16-year-old son was listed as the primary contact on the plan — prompting yet another call to customer service.

“Every time I talk to someone they say ‘This should take care of it,’” Keeney said. “I can’t trust what anyone says.”

Fisher said that he would continue to advocate for Vermonters as they have problems.

“Generally the website is still conky, but with assistance people can get through,” Fisher said.

Keeney said his difficulty in navigating the Vermont Health Connect website has left him skeptical that the new insurance for his family with kick in on Jan. 1.

“I’m concerned about the billing process, and about being insured at the beginning of the year,” Keeney said. “It’s a convoluted process that’s prone to mistakes.”

Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, said that she has fielded concerns about the website from constituents.

“I’ve heard from a couple people with serious conditions that are very much on edge,” Ayer said.

Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, said he has received numerous emails and letters from constituents about Vermont Health Connect. He said that while he receives chain letters on some topics, he has never before received as many emails from individuals on a particular issue.

“Every single case is different, that’s why it is so challenging,” Bray said.

On Dec. 7, Ayers, Fisher and Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, attended a Vermont Health Connect help session at Mount Abraham Union High School in Bristol. Ayer said health care navigators were able to help dozens of people successfully navigate the site.

She added that some functions of the program are not intuitive, and that with a project this large, there are bound to be some rough spots.

“There’s never enough time to test, and some things always go wrong,” Ayer said. “But they are continually working on it.”

On Dec. 12, Shumlin said that 45,000 people had enrolled in the program, though news reports said that only one third of that number did so through the Vermont Health Connect website. The majority of citizens have registered through their insurers, Blue Cross Blue Shield or MVP Health, or filed paper applications.

In order to have coverage Jan. 1, Vermonters must complete their applications by Monday, Dec. 23. Individuals and small businesses have until March 31 to enroll.

Ayer said that despite the glitches, she is confident anyone who wants to enroll will be able to do so by that deadline.

Lisa Daudon, Keeney’s wife, chimed in on the email chain that followed her husband’s original email. She appreciated the help from the lawmakers with her family’s specific situation, but was critical of the roll-out of the service. She said that as a constituent she was disturbed by how the tax dollars were spent and the level of common sense that went into the exchange and follow up.

“At some point, I would like to know why, when there are such technological information available and so many companies doing equally or more complex tasks, we end up being stuck with such a cumbersome and user-unfriendly site,” she wrote. “I’m sure you are asking the same thing.”

Vermonters in need of assistance may call the Vermont Health Connect help line, toll-free, at 1-888-899-9600, or visit vermonthealthconnect.gov to find “assisters” in one’s area for in-person support.

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