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Maryland sticks by its overall goal for health insurance and Medicaid enrollments

This screen image shows the Web site for Maryland's online health-care exchange. (AP/AP/State of Maryland)

Maryland health officials received some convenient news last week: The enrollment goal they had set for the state’s health exchange was based on incorrect research, and a more realistic projection was one they had already met. But the state is sticking with its original too-high goal, a member of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Cabinet told lawmakers on Monday.

“If you know the governor, he’s not someone who is inclined to lower goals once he sets them,” said Joshua Sharfstein, Maryland’s secretary of health and mental hygiene. “We’re going to keep doing our best.”

Maryland’s online health insurance marketplace has been plagued with problems since it launched on Oct. 1, hindering thousands of people trying to get coverage. The state announced Monday that it had fired the contractor that had built the troubled exchange, and officials say they may soon have to abandon all or part of the system, which cost tens of millions of dollars to build.

Maryland continues to aim to get at least 260,000 residents enrolled in a private health insurance plan or Medicaid by the end of the first enrollment period on March 31. Researchers set their corrected projections somewhere between 165,000 and 190,000. So far, state officials say, the enrollment tally is about 190,000, although O’Malley pegged it at 200,000 during an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday morning.

More than 80 percent of those sign-ups are for Medicaid, not private plans, the number of which has dramatically lagged the researchers’ incorrect and correct projections. And more than 50 percent of the total enrollment are people who did have to go through the exchange because they were automatically signed up for Medicaid when the state expanded eligibility requirements.

Before the exchange launched, state officials said they expected at least 150,000 Marylanders would sign up for coverage through the exchange, a number based on research by the Hilltop Institute at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) floated an even higher goal of 180,000. Insurance companies used these projections to form their business plans and set their rates.

As of Feb. 15, 33,251 Marylanders had enrolled in private health plans through the exchange. That’s less than a quarter of O’Malley’s original goal, with just more than a month left to go.

On Friday, the researchers formally alerted state officials that the timeframe for their projections had been mislabeled and rather than applying to one enrollment period, the projections cover two periods.

They now predict that least 70,000 uninsured Marylanders will sign up for coverage through the exchange. When including all Marylanders — whether they previously had health insurance or not — the estimate is 75,000 to 100,000, according to the Hilltop’s executive director. Under any of those goals for private plans, Maryland has a long way to go in the next few weeks.

When Sharfstein was asked Monday if the state would also keep its too-high goal for private plan sign-ups or if it would revise that goal, he responded: “We’ve tried to frame it around the overall number. That’s what we’re still doing.”

Jenna Johnson is a political reporter who is covering the 2016 presidential campaign.

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