Uncertainty surrounds Md. health exchange deadline

December 10, 2013|By Andrea K. Walker and Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown cast uncertainty Tuesday on the administration's ability to meet a deadline for repairs of the state's online insurance marketplace, which has had one of the country's most troubled rollouts under Obamacare.

Asked about the deadline imposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley to make nine major technical fixes to the site by mid-December, Brown said: "When we have a clearer sense, we'll let you know."

"This is Dec. 10, and the governor said mid-month, so we're continuing to look at it and evaluate it," he said.

Charged by O'Malley with implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act, Brown made his comments at the first in a series of briefings in which he has pledged to update Marylanders on efforts to fix glitches that have plagued the Maryland Health Connection since the website launched Oct. 1.

Brown was asked repeatedly about deadlines. "We will report back," he said. "I know there's been, and rightfully so, a desire for more information."

State officials have set a goal of enrolling about 150,000 residents in private insurance through the exchange by March 31, the deadline before Americans face penalties for not having coverage. To get coverage by Jan. 1, consumers must enroll by Dec. 23. Another 97,000 are expected to gain coverage through Medicaid.

So far, about 22,000 Marylanders have obtained coverage through the exchange. That includes about 5,200 in private plans and about 17,000 low-income adults eligible for Medicaid under an expansion of that program.

Rebecca Pearce, who has since resigned from her position as executive director of the exchange, last week called the 150,000 goal a "hopeful target." And on Tuesday, Brown was noncommittal on the state's ability to reach that goal.

"One hundred fifty thousand," Brown said. "That continues to be our focus. We're improving the exchange every day so we can get closer to 150,000."

Brown said leadership changes at the exchange will help spur those efforts. He was joined by Carolyn Quattrocki, the new interim executive director, and Maryland Health Secretary Joshua M. Sharfstein, who was put in charge of operations.

Missing was Isabel FitzGerald, the state's chief information technology officer, who is leading the effort to fix the site. Brown said she was busy with that task.

Frozen screens, problems verifying applicants and error messages have hampered the website. It was supposed to allow the estimated 800,000 uninsured Marylanders to sign in and browse 45 plans from six insurers, but instead crashed within minutes of its launch.

State officials have acknowledged problems with the site, but had given few details publicly about what was wrong. Email messages and other documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public information request revealed infighting between contractors, management issues and more detail about technical problems with the site.

Brown has taken responsibility for the failings, but contends that he was not told about the technical problems and strife between the contractors. He said he was greeted with "a mess" Oct. 1.

The lieutenant governor's remarks about the deadline for repairs echoed statements from an O'Malley spokeswoman, who said Monday that the administration was making progress in repairing the site but did not say whether major glitches would be fixed by his deadline. O'Malley was in South America on a trade mission.

Improvements have been made to Maryland's website, officials said, including increasing memory and rewriting code to reduce errors. Sharfstein has said that the site is far more functional than it was Oct. 1.

An exchange official said that of the nine major fixes targeted by O'Malley, three have been resolved and work continues on the other six. Four more are expected to be resolved this week.

State officials hope that FitzGerald's technical expertise will help with the process. She is credited with having redesigned the information technology structure at the Department of Human Resources and renegotiating contracts with vendors to save the department about $10 million a year, said Ted Dallas, the state's secretary of human resources.

Quattrocki said outreach efforts are in place to help consumers enroll and that "work-around options" have been developed to help consumers buy insurance through other means while the site is improved.

For instance, those not eligible for subsidies can sign up directly with insurers. If residents qualify for subsidies, they still have to go through the exchange.

So-called navigators helping consumers sign up for insurance are taking paper applications. The state recently added an addendum to these applications that asks for more data so navigators have to make fewer calls asking consumers for more information.

But now there's a backlog of paper applications, state officials have acknowledged. About 8,500 paper applications were pending as of last week.

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