Et tu, Shapleigh?

Once in a while, even a jaded Political Observer sees something that cracks through his tough shell of cynicism and evinces a breathy “Whoa!” It happened last night when I was reading a report by VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld about Vermont Health Connect.

Background: Governor Shumlin has said he’ll be ready to explore alternatives to VHC if it fails to meet functionality deadlines at the end of May and October. The “Whoa!” comes courtesy of House Speaker Shap Smith, who flat-out said there’s only one deadline that matters, and it’s the first one.

Smith on Thursday morning said he’ll look to begin the transition to a federal version of the website if May passes without a change-of-circumstance fix. “If nearly two years after we try to bring the exchange online we still don’t have an exchange that works in an effective way, then I believe that we need to move to another system,” Smith says.

"Wait, what did you say?"

“Wait, what did you just say?”

That’s a pretty clear statement that pretty clearly puts Mr. Speaker and the Governor at odds. And Shap Smith is not one to speak without thinking. Carefully. Twice. At least.

If you had any doubt about that, Mr. Speaker doubled down on his comments today on “The Mark Johnson Show.”

If we don’t meet the May 31 deadline… we will need to explore other options.

He asserted that many Vermonters had “already lost confidence in the exchange,” and “at some point, they will lose all confidence.” And if May 31 comes and goes without success, “I don’t see how we can go to Vermonters” and tell them it will work eventually.

When Johnson noted that Shumlin has two deadlines, May and October, and asked “Is May your deadline?” Smith replied, “Yes.” He expressed hope that VHC will meet the May deadline, but sketched out a plan for legislative committees to work over the summer to develop alternatives.

Smith’s appearance before the Johnson microphone was followed, mirabile dictu, by Governor Shumlin himself. And Shumlin stuck to his guns.

“There are two dates. Change of circumstance needs to work by May 31, and re-enrollment by October 31. If those two functions aren’t working by November, we’ll be looking at other options.”

There it is. The two most powerful Democrats in Montpelier* have very different outlooks on Vermont Health Connect. If I were an irresponsible blogger, I’d be tempted to write something about “the opening salvos in the 2016 Democratic primary.” Good thing I’m not.

*John Campbell? Feh.

And really, that’s not what this is about. This is about identifying the best way forward. And in this case, Shap Smith is right: if VHC’s change of circumstance function isn’t working on June 1, it will be time to start finding another way — even if it can’t be implemented until the 2017 insurance year. Which everyone agrees it can’t.

Smith is acting less in his own political interest than in his party’s interest. Waiting until November would push the process of creating an alternative well into the 2016 campaign season. Democrats would only be able to offer promises to find a better way, which won’t convince anybody.

By this time next year, they must be able to articulate a clearly defined better way. Keeping to Shumlin’s timetable would risk immense harm to the Democratic Party in 2016. I suspect that Mr. Speaker isn’t willing to take that risk, even if the alternative is to throw shade on his own Governor.

Mind you, everyone — including Smith — wants VHC to work. They want all of this talk and speculation to be rendered moot. Smith doesn’t want to part ways with the Governor, and hopes he doesn’t have to take that step. But if May 31 comes and goes, he is prepared to move in another direction whether the Governor likes it or not.

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