THERE’S NOW a preliminary price tag on Maryland’s failure to roll out a functional health-insurance Web site: $5 million to $10 million. That’s an estimate of how much it will cost the state to offer emergency health coverage to people who couldn’t sign up on Maryland’s online Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace before Jan. 1. Extending last-minute coverage to these people is the right thing to do. But it’s not a substitute for a working Web site, nor for holding the state’s leaders to account.
For months, Marylanders have encountered error after error when trying to use the Maryland Health Connection, which was supposed to serve as their primary interface with the ACA. One bug gave definition to the word infuriating, freezing the site just as users were about to click the “enroll” button. The number of people who managed to sign up for private insurance through the marketplace has just surpassed 20,000, and that relatively low figure came only after recent site improvements resulted in a late increase in enrollments. It is also very far from the state’s goal of 150,000 sign-ups by the end of March.
The ACA was supposed to transform insurance shopping from confusing and opaque to simple, open and user-friendly, with the goal of encouraging lots of people to sign up and enjoy the security of health coverage. Instead, the experience was so bad in Maryland that people couldn’t complete applications, and some of them are now or soon will be on the hook for high medical costs incurred since the beginning of the year, with no way to get coverage that takes effect before next month.
That’s why Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) submitted emergency legislation that would offer people inadvertently stuck without insurance the option of temporary coverage, and make it retroactive to Jan. 1. The plan would avoid any further Web site glitches by using the infrastructure of an older, established Maryland insurance program that operated independently of the ACA. Eventually, participants will have to move into a more functional marketplace. Giving uninsured Marylanders a functional bridge to the new system is only fair. State leaders must, however, make sure that it doesn’t undercut the final phase-in of the ACA.
That means the Web site must improve, and fast, so that the average person can get through it without hassle and so that insurers get all the information they need to enroll applicants. It’s not there yet. After months of mess, the people of Maryland also need an explanation. Why didn’t state leaders — such as Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), the state’s health-reform point-man — know that the site was such a disaster before launch? Which contractors, and which state officials, should have spoken up? It’s not too early for this discussion. The Obama administration just fired one of its major HealthCare.gov contractors. What has Maryland done?