• Small businesses running out of time
     | November 23,2013

    MONTPELIER — The Vermont Chamber of Commerce is concerned that many small businesses will be unwittingly enrolled in state health care plans if they don’t meet Monday’s deadline for telling workers whether their employer-sponsored health care will continue.

    Gov. Peter Shumlin earlier this month postponed the state-level mandate for individuals and small businesses to obtain insurance coverage on Vermont Health Connect, the state’s version of the online insurance exchanges required under the federal Affordable Care Act.

    Current insurance plans now can be extended until March 31 because of persistent glitches with the website.

    But the deadlines for choosing one of the available options are not part of the extension. For small businesses, only the weekend remains before Monday’s cutoff. Individuals have until Dec. 15.

    “We’re concerned that there are a lot of businesses that heard the governor’s announcement that there’s a three-month extension available out there and are still operating under the assumption that they have three months to decide to do anything,” said Shannon Wilson, vice president of operations for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, on Friday.

    “That message has kind of overpowered the deadline of Monday,” she said.

    By Monday, businesses with 50 or fewer employees must choose whether to offer coverage on Vermont Health Connect, buy a plan directly through one of the state’s two insurance carriers, opt for the new extension of existing plans or drop employer-sponsored coverage altogether.

    Blue Cross Blue Shield and MVP Health Care sent letters to employers last week outlining the available options. And the state chamber has assigned staffers to furiously work the phone lines to inform about 4,000 small businesses, according to Betsy Bishop, the chamber’s executive director.

    As of Friday, though, less than 10 percent of the chamber’s small-business members had fulfilled the requirement, according to the organization.

    Vermont has nearly 20,000 small businesses, most of them not members of the state chamber, but it’s unclear how many currently offer employer-sponsored health care. Vermont Health Connect spokeswoman Emily Yahr said Friday the state did not have a tally of how many businesses had already responded.

    Any small business that does not respond by Monday will automatically be enrolled in one of the 18 insurance plans on the exchange that most closely matches current coverage.

    “Some may very well not be responding knowing that the default option will be enrolling in a similar plan, but the majority, most likely, either because they don’t know they have to or they haven’t had time to decide,” Wilson said.

    Some businesses may not want to be enrolled in the exchange, she said.

    “For those folks, they may not be pleased to wake up Tuesday or Wednesday morning and find out that they’ve been enrolled in a plan that they didn’t actively choose,” Wilson said.

    The overwhelming majority of the 350 or so businesses that had informed the chamber of their intentions were choosing to take advantage of the extension of current plans, according to Wilson.

    “That’s proving to be a very appealing option just to give them more time and let the dust settle and figure out what they want to do for April 1,” she said.

    For some, the cost of similar plans has been the motivating factor.

    “We have heard from some groups who have looked at that, have looked at the premiums for the exchange plans and have decided that … were they to be mapped to similar plans that their costs would go up 8 percent,” Wilson said.

    “They’re choosing to extend their plan because of that,” she said.

    So far, very few businesses are choosing to drop coverage altogether.

    “We’ve gotten 350 forms back and only two have said they’re going to drop entirely,” Wilson said.

    Meanwhile, the Shumlin administration announced a fix for the exchange website Thursday, saying it would stop errors encountered by employees of companies that have chosen to offer health insurance on the exchange. Most of those employees were unable to select the plan they wanted.

    Wilson said the fix appears to have worked and plans can now be selected.

    “As of last night we were seeing a lot of improvement,” she said. “That’s been much improved, which is good. Everybody now has a lot of catching up to do.”

    neal.goswami @timesargus.com

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