When Will Montpelier Admit They Were Wrong?

by Joseph Blanchette (Update on a recent VermontDigger posting.)A crying elderly woman covering her face

My wife recently mentioned that she again was unable to access Vermont Health Connect’s (VHC) website to download next month’s premium invoice. Such breakdowns have characterized our experience ever since we signed up for the state-run health plan last December. That experience foreshadowed ten months of disappointment with a program that politicians promised would offer simpler, more efficient and cost effective health plans that would quickly save Vermonters hundreds of millions of dollars. None of these benefits have been delivered.

As happened with many Vermonters, the Internet enrollment process was complex and frustrating. The process took me an entire morning, and even then I was unsure of successful completion. My phone calls to VHC repeatedly put me into “voice mail jail.” My messages seeking help went unheeded for over a week. Responses to my emails were met with assurances of answers in a week. At the start of the new year, things still weren’t right and I spent more time fixing problems.

The plans we selected had higher premium costs, higher out-of-pocket co-payments and deductibles, and reduced benefits compared to our previous BCBS plan. So we now pay thousands of dollars more for poorer coverage and inferior service. This summer we were informed that our premium would be due by the 26th of the month prior to the covered month, four-to-five days earlier than premiums are historically due. The stated reason? To allow more time to process payments. The unstated reason? To hold Vermonters’ money in VHC’s interest-bearing bank account, not ours. But things got even worse.

Given these experiences, I urged my wife to notify VHC in July that she would by moving to Medicare on September 1st. She was informed that VHC could only process her request within 30 days of the change date. So she called again in early August and asked to be removed from VHC coverage as of September 1. She was told her request had been sent to a specialist and they were “working on it.” We received no further communication from VHC that month regarding the requested change.

In early September, she called again for a status report and informed VHC that we would now send premium only for my coverage as she was no longer on the VHC plan. She was startled to learn that this would not be acceptable. Due to processing backlogs, we would be required to continue paying her premium as well as mine for several more months until VHC’s processing backlog was eliminated. My wife presumed that we would then receive a timely refund of overpayments. Wrong again! VHC would keep our overpayment as a credit to be used against my future premium payments. “May we read this policy,” we asked the representative? “Sorry. I can’t send it to you. Things change daily.”

Earlier in October we received two email messages directing us to the VHC website for our November invoice. The website was still not running and two days later another email arrived saying, “never mind.” Our most recent invoice arrived seeking both premium payments once again, but it included a mysterious $154.00 credit. After spending almost an hour on the phone with VHC, they conceded that they improperly credited someone else’s payment to our account. As of mid-October VHC still wants my wife’s premium as well as mine for November. When asked for a status report on this very costly matter, we were told they are working it, perhaps they need more information, and we should call another department for an update. More time on hold, more dropped calls, more wasted time, and more frustration with Vermont’s health care panacea.

At month’s end, I received a letter directing me to call VHC within seven days about “my change.” After speaking with two of VHC’s outsourced representatives in North Carolina, (they had no idea about why I was calling), and being on hold six times during the forty minute call, I was told that last summer’s change request was never processed. “You and your wife will have to fill out change applications.” When I refused I was told they would fill out the forms and call me by the end of the days to confirm details and completion. You guessed it. That call never came.

I recall the outrage from Montpelier and the media a few years back whenever a BCBS policyholder complained about the carrier’s slightest misstep. Yet, despite ten months of squandered millions, incompetence and confiscation of policyholder funds, politicians urge us to be patient and trust that they know best. They’ll get their experiment right, eventually.

Such incompetence and arrogance are what we get, and will be getting more of, as this growing state monopoly―unaccountable to policyholder needs and concerns―continues to take over all critical aspects of our health care system. And we haven’t even gotten to the serious stuff that will eventually impact every Vermonter, not just those stuck with VHC health plans. Single Payer’s global budgets, higher costs, doctor shortages, longer wait times, limited access, and an estimated two-plus billion dollar annual price tag are on their way. I long for when I could have taken my business to competing, more responsive and competent health insurance providers. When will legislators admit their horrible failure?

–  Joseph Blanchette was a Howard Dean appointee to the Public Oversight Commission as a labor/consumer representative. He formerly served as Benefits Director for VT-NEA, and as a fiduciary and co-manager the Vermont Education Health Initiative. He lives in Charlotte

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