Maryland health exchange users hit snags, but O’Malley reasserts ‘major fixes’ are done

December 16, 2013

Maryland’s online health-insurance exchange got mixed marks from some users Monday who said the Web site continued to have serious difficulties despite Gov. Martin O’Malley’s announcement this weekend that the major problems hindering enrollment had been fixed.

O’Malley (D) largely stood by his rosy assessment, telling reporters that the state had reached “an important milestone” by making nine “major fixes” that targeted the most common crashes and other problems that have limited the number of Marylanders signing up for insurance plans under the federal health-care law.

“The Web site is now functional for most of our citizens as they apply online,” O’Malley said at an afternoon news conference, though he acknowledged that a server malfunction had slowed down the site for about an hour earlier in the day.

The governor said that the state’s online marketplace is still “not perfect by any means” and said the state had hired a new contractor to help with further improvements.

But some questioned how much progress had been made.

Peter Beilenson, chief executive of Evergreen Health, one of the insurers offering plans on Maryland’s exchange, said brokers working with his company continued to get stuck on Monday as they tried to help customers navigate the Web site.

“The bottom line is it doesn’t appear to be any different than last week,” Beilenson said. “We know they’ve been working really hard, but it’s clearly not functioning well.”

At four enrollment sites set up to help dozens of people in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties on Saturday, however, staffers said they noticed the difference. According to O’Malley, the major fixes had been completed by Friday morning.

“The fact that the system didn’t crash like it did the previous Saturday was a big improvement,” said Mary C. Anderson, a public information officer for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, which is overseeing enrollment and outreach in the capital region including Prince George’s.

Dori Henry, a spokeswoman for the exchange, said the server malfunction Monday slowed down the site starting around noon and the server was “manually taken offline to be fixed.” She said the problem was unrelated to the nine issues O’Malley said had been resolved.

Henry said the exchange had seen no firm evidence that those “priority issues” were still a problem.

Maryland is among the states that elected to set up their own Web-based health exchanges rather than use the federal online marketplace. The state’s system, which was set up with the help of contractors, has been riddled with glitches since its Oct. 1 launch.

As of Friday, 7,435 people had chosen to enroll in private plans through the exchange, according to figures released by O’Malley’s office. The state has set a goal of enrolling 150,000 people by the end of March, a target that O’Malley continued to stick by on Monday.

An additional 22,323 people have enrolled in Medicaid through the exchange, officials said. The goal for Medicaid is 110,000 people by the end of March.

O’Malley said that with the site functioning better, the state is stepping up its marketing efforts, which should boost enrollment in private plans significantly in coming weeks.

“It will be exciting to see what this week brings,” he said at the news conference. He was joined by Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), who has asserted a leadership role in implementing health-care reforms in Maryland.

O’Malley announced that the state was hiring Optum/QSSI, a Columbia, Md.-based company, “to accelerate our progress.” The federal government tapped the same IT contractor in October to help with continuing glitches in its exchange Web site.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, O’Malley pledged to resolve the nine major issues hindering sign-ups on Maryland’s site by mid-December.

Among the big problems that he said were fixed was the Web site’s tendency to freeze just as users seeking to obtain insurance plans clicked the “Enroll” button.

O’Malley also announced that CareFirst, one of the insurers offering plans through the exchange, has agreed to extend the enrollment deadline to Dec. 27 from Dec. 23 for coverage that begins Jan. 1. He said state officials are discussing similar extensions with other carriers.

Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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