By David Flemming
My saga begins seven months ago, in November 2018. Since I had to stop paying for my mom’s health insurance in 2019 when I turned 26, I wanted to make sure that I could buy health insurance before it lapsed. I really only had one choice: the Vermont Health Connect website.
In 2011, Vermont’s Legislature passed a bill for creating a single-payer healthcare system. By 2014, Gov. Shumlin had scaled back ambitions for the website, which had initially been created as a vehicle for providing health insurance to all Vermonters. Skyrocketing costs, privacy breaches and a neigh-unusable website that received hundreds of complaints torpedoed the effort.
Five years later, Vermont Health Connect is supposed be a tool for exhibiting the health plans offered by Vermont’s only two large health insurance providers, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and MVP. Its humble goal is to help Vermonters choose the best insurance, while allowing them to report changes that may affect their rates. It somehow fails to meet even those low standards. At least for me.
According to the website, “open enrollment typically starts in November and lasts for about six weeks. At other times of the year, you may still be able to enroll in coverage if you lose health coverage or have another qualifying event.” Under the heading “Qualifying Events” tab, I saw “aging out of parental coverage” as a valid reason for a Special Enrollment Period (SEP). The website said I “may apply (for a SEP) up to 60 days in advance of coverage end date or apply within 60 days following coverage end date.” Since I knew that my coverage end date was my 26th birthday, 5/15/2019, I figured I could apply anytime between 3/16/2019 to 7/14/2019.
My line of work means that I’m somewhat paranoid about government bureaucracy. This time, I was thankful for my paranoia. Rather than wait for March, I decided to see what health insurance I could purchase in November 2018 in case it didn’t go smoothly. I found a table with the different insurance plans that I was eligible for in November 2018, listing dozens of options. At least I had a reference point for when everything hit the fan.
So, March rolled around, and I logged into Vermont Health Connect, to discover that I could not find prices for any of the plans, much less make my purchase. I called Vermont Health Connect as instructed, and they told me I “had to wait until after my birthday (May 15).” In the back of my mind, this raised a reg flag, since this stood in stark contrast to what the website told me. So I would be without insurance beginning on my birthday.
I dutifully went to Vermont Health Connect after my birthday, only to discover that I couldn’t even login. In fact, Vermont Health Connect appeared to be the only website in my life that I had ever encountered where I could not reset my password online. I had to call tech support.
I called customer service on Friday, and the person in charge of showing me the plans told me that she couldn’t reset my password. She had to hand off that request to someone else who had left early for the day. I asked her bluntly, “so my password will be reset on Monday?” She initially said “yes” before qualifying that with “it should be.” Wonderful. But she told me that she would enroll me in a SEP so that, as soon as I logged in, I could look at the insurance plans.
A week later, I was finally able to login. But the website was so clunky I couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to go to see the plans I was eligible for. So I called Vermont Health Connect again. It wasn’t just me: apparently the customer rep hadn’t made any changes to my account, aside from my password change. Therefore, I wasn’t “eligible for any plans” since I didn’t use the open enrollment last year. I asked her if she had any record of my previous call a week ago, when I had been granted a SEP. “No” was her reply. Then I went through the five-minute process of verifying who I was and letting her know when I lost my coverage. She reached the same conclusion that the last rep had: I was eligible for a SEP because I had been kicked off my insurance a few weeks ago! Who knew.
Somehow, this still didn’t work. After several calls back and forth from May to June, and assurances that I would get my SEP, I finally reached someone who got the website to let me purchase insurance. Unfortunately, this turned out to be the longest call yet: he asked me all the questions that the website had already asked me weeks ago. But, in the end, I was finally able to see the plans on the website!
The bad: there were 28 plans without an easy way to filter them on the website, aside from monthly cost. The good: I’m proficient with Excel, so after an hour or two, I had created a good comparison chart. Narrowing it down to 2 plans, I finally made my choice: an MVP Bronze plan.
Since I wasn’t able to see what plans were available from January to May 14, I was without health insurance for 40 days, from May 15 to June 24. Now, I am usually pretty healthy, but I was exceedingly nervous behind the wheel: if I was in a severe car accident accident, the hospital bills would probably bankrupt me. I was exceedingly unimpressed with the Vermont Health Connect product: the website and customer service were sunk below my low expectations. When Vermont started building the exchange in 2013, “had hoped the exchange could process change-of-circumstances requests by April (2014) without those requests being handled manually.” It is insane that Vermont wasn’t able to use its $200 million to develop the website for something as simple as processing my normal change of circumstance and which is barely serviceable for helping Vermonters choose insurance. How many more years and taxpayer dollars will be wasted on Vermont Health Connect?
David Flemming is a policy analyst for the Ethan Allen Institute. Reprinted with permission from the Ethan Allen Institute Blog.