Maryland shelves educational workshops for small-business health insurance exchange


One month ago, President Obama said the health exchange launch would likely be smoother in Maryland than in other states around the country. (MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA)
October 24, 2013

It isn’t just the federal health insurance exchange that is running into problems. Some of the state-run exchanges are facing their own setbacks — including the one in Maryland.

State health officials, who already missed the federal government’s deadline to launch an insurance exchange for small businesses, have quietly nixed plans to hold informational sessions this month to educate employers about their soon-to-open insurance marketplace.

The workshops were supposed to take place starting Wednesday and run through Nov. 7, with 10 sessions scheduled in various counties. Links to details about the sessions were deleted from the exchange Web site, and no information was posted concerning rescheduling plans.

Danielle Davis, a spokeswoman for the exchange, confirmed in an e-mail to On Small Business that the sessions have been postponed, adding that officials believe “there is ample time for these meetings and will reschedule as necessary.”

Joshua M. Sharfstein, chairman of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange board, said the sessions were put off because officials want to focus their outreach efforts on the individual exchange right now. Asked if the small-business portal was still on pace to open Jan. 1, Sharfstein said “that is the current plan.”

Maryland was one of 16 states (as well as the District of Columbia) that elected to build its own insurance exchanges, one for individuals and one for small businesses, as mandated by the new health care law. The rest elected to fall back on new portals built and operated by the federal government.

Originally, all the exchanges were supposed to be fully operational by Oct. 1. However, the widely used federal exchange has encountered a slew of technical problems and currently lacks the tools necessary for small firms to sign up for coverage online.

“Nobody’s madder than me about the Web site not working as well as it should,” President Obama said during a speech earlier last week at the White House, adding that there is “no excuse for the problems.”

In Maryland, meanwhile, health department officials announced this summer that they would not be ready to launch the small-business side of their exchange until the start of next year. Still, Obama applauded the state’s efforts in the days leading up the launch, praising its exchange as a prime example of how the system was intended to work.

“Folks in different parts of the country will have different experiences,” Obama told the crowd at Prince George’s Community College on Sept. 26. “It’s going to be smoother in places like Maryland where governors are working to implement it rather than fight it.”

But even in those states, progress has varied.

On Maryland’s individual exchange, which opened Oct. 1, about 2,300 people have successfully enrolled for coverage, compared to more than 10,000 who signed up in just the first 10 days for the state-run exchange in Kentucky, which has between 600,000 and 700,000 uninsured residents compared to 800,000 in Maryland. Maryland’s site has also experienced technical glitches that consumers say have prevented them from signing up for coverage, and visitors are reportedly unable to search to see whether their doctors participate in certain plans.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who helped oversee the state’s health-care reform efforts, acknowledged during a meeting last week that “the state stumbled out of the gate” with the exchange.

Maryland’s is not the only exchange that has suffered delays or setbacks. In Washington State, for example, only one insurer signed up to sell small-business plans, and only in two counties, leaving most of the state’s employers without new coverage options. Nearby, Oregon’s online exchange is not yet open for business.

In the District of Columbia, the individual and employer exchanges opened on time, and roughly 12,300 people and 426 small businesses have signed up for accounts so far — however, the site has not been problem-free. Days before the launch, officials announced that visitors will not actually be able to see whether they are eligible for tax credits until mid-November.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he runs the On Small Business blog.
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