Direct enrollment for business health care exchange plans extended

Organizations representing Vermont's small businesses say they're disappointed the state will have to continue to rely on insurance companies to enroll small businesses and their employees in Vermont Health Connect insurance plans.

Businesses with 50 or fewer employees, who are required to buy health coverage through the state's health care exchange, still can't use the website to sign up.

When it became clear last fall that the website wouldn't be operable for businesses, the state announced that those companies would be allowed to purchase insurance directly from the two carriers in the exchange - Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont and MVP Health Care.

But when businesses enroll directly with insurers their employees have fewer coverage options due to the burden it creates for the plans' administrators.

"There's some flexibility and choice that they'll be losing and that is disappointing," said Andrea Cohen, director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit business group.

But Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont officials say they will ensure that businesses and their workers will have access to the full range of choices available through Vermont Health Connect.

Vermont announced earlier this week that it had received federal approval for insurers to continue to directly enroll small businesses through the next open enrollment period, which begins Nov. 15.

Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access, said the federal government was "mindful" of the employee choice issue in their decision to allow direct enrollment to continue, and work has begun with the insurers to expand the options.

He expects small businesses to be able to enroll their employees using the website during the upcoming open enrollment period, but the state is reserving direct enrollment with insurers as an additional option for businesses.

Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, said she, too, is disappointed the state hasn't been able to make the exchange website operable for small businesses, but allowing businesses to continue direct enrollment is a prudent move.

"Direct enrollment for 2015 is a good idea. We had proposed that six months ago as a permanent option. While it limits choice, there aren't currently any good alternatives," Bishop said.

Businesses that took advantage of the three-month extension of this year's open enrollment period have only just completed the direct enrollment process, Bishop said. It wouldn't make sense to have them start at square one by forcing them to use the website just six months later at the outset of the next open enrollment period, she said.

"I'm disappointed the small business are not going to have greater choice, but frankly we wouldn't be in this position if we hadn't been the only state in the country to mandate small businesses into the exchanges," she said.

Clarification: Blue Cross Blue Shield will make a range of plans available.


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