In Maryland, official incompetence has made signing up for health coverage too much work


Dozens of uninsured residents of Montgomery County stand in line Wednesday at the Department of Health and Human Services of the Silver Spring Center on Georgia Avenue to sign up for health insurance. (Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist March 27

Tyrone Keels is exactly what the doctor ordered for the troubled rollout of Obamacare. He’s 27 — making him part of a much coveted demographic among the uninsured — and eager to sign up for health coverage through the Maryland health insurance exchange.

There’s just one thing standing in his way: the total incompetence of state officials.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Because Maryland’s $170 million health-care exchange Web site continues to be buggier than August in Florida, Keels decided to drive to the Montgomery County Health and Human Services Center in Silver Spring and sign up the old-fashioned way, before Monday’s deadline.

On Thursday, the overnight security guard was 125th in line. Four hours later, the bureaucrats inside were still on No. 21. So Keels, not surprisingly, gave up.

“I don’t have the patience or stamina for it right now,” said Keels, who lives in Silver Spring and came to the center right after his shift. He needed time to sleep before his next one. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. Because there’s a deadline, but I can’t just keep coming back,” he said.

While the White House reported Thursday that more than 6 million people have signed up for private insurance as a result of the Affordable Care Act, Keels wasn’t one of them. Neither was a 37-year-old woman from Bowie. She was No. 66. The bureaucrats were on No. 28 when she left at noon.

“I’m a waitress, I have to get to work today,” she said, declining to give her name because she didn’t want her boss to know where she had been.

As The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson reported this week, the center’s parking lot was packed. Cars filled the surrounding streets around Georgia Avenue. A tow truck came in and began removing cars from the residential streets.

“I’m so sorry! I don’t control it out there, I’m only in charge of the parking lot,” said a security guard who apologized to people angry that their cars had been towed.

And they still didn’t have health insurance.

“People started coming here at 6 a.m. It was already full at 6 a.m.,” the guard said.

Inside, there were no empty chairs. Dozens of people were standing and grumbling. Kids screamed. A black, strapless bra had been trampled on the floor.

“This is no way to do it,” said a laid-off teacher who is 61 and needs health coverage. “I also need a job. I still have a few good years left in me.”

After many hours and several attempts, he had managed to sign up for coverage on the state’s Web site. But he was worried that he didn’t get a confirmation.

“Wait in line for more hours? I don’t know,” he said outside the center. “There has to be a better way.”

Yes, there has to be a better way.

The Affordable Care Act — or Obamacare, as most of the folks at the center called it — was our president’s signature achievement in his first term. It’s appalling to watch as the rollout is botched in a state whose voters strongly support it.

The Post did an exhaustive investigation into how royally Maryland messed up the creation of its health exchange, farming out the work to Fargo, N.D., and Ukraine. According to the documents that The Post’s Aaron C. Davis and Mary Pat Flaherty obtained, the auditors overseeing the Maryland project were sending out S.O.S. signals for months, but no one was listening, including Gov. Martin-in-2016-O’Malley (D).

And even as the parking lot at the Health and Human Services Center in Silver Spring fills two hours before opening each day, no one from the state is listening again.

“I just want Obamacare. Why is this so hard?” said one of the women whose car was towed.

Again, it’s all about execution.

State workers should have backup and infrastructure. The folks at that Montgomery County center can only process 150 applications on their computers every day. Didn’t anyone realize that we are a nation of procrastinators? Why else do stores stay open late on Christmas Eve?

Officials did soften the March 31 deadline and allow folks to complete the process later as long as they have started it by Monday. They’ve got to call the hotline at 800-396-1961 to tell government folks that they’ve begun this process.

“Yeah. Call them. I was on hold for three hours,” said Keels, the security guard who tried to enroll by computer, phone and in person.

It’s a mess, that’s clear. So far, only about 45,000 Maryland residents have managed to sign up.

Meanwhile, O’Malley is preparing a run for the presidency. He explained why he’s jumping ahead of any announcement from Hillary Rodham Clinton to launch his own ambitions:

“But for my own part, I have a responsibility to prepare and to address the things that I feel a responsibility to address. . . . To squander this important period of preparation because of horse-race concerns and handicapping concerns is just not a very productive use of energy. . . . Right now, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing — the thought work and the preparation work.”

I have an idea. How about if the governor keeps doing what he was elected to do? Creating a health insurance exchange shouldn’t be such a difficult thing to get right.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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