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Health

Mikulski says Md. should stick to own health exchange

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said Friday that Maryland should not switch to the federal government's health exchange despite technical problems with the state-run website where the uninsured can buy plans under the Affordable Care Act.

"I think Maryland is really getting its act together and is on the right track," the Maryland Democrat said. "The federal exchange is a work in progress, so to move from one system that's had a creaky start to another system that's had a creaky start I don't think is advantageous to Maryland."

Mikulski made her remarks after a news conference promoting approval of a modernized version of Maryland's Medicare waiver, a unique agreement with the federal government that allows the state to set its own hospital rates.

Mikulski said she understood concerns by Rep. John Delaney of Montgomery County, who has suggested that the state scrap its system and use the federal government's website, which also had problems for months but is now running smoothly for most people. Mikulski said she, too, wants a better Maryland site, but that the state should "stay its course."

Gov. Martin O'Malley and other state officials have not ruled out a shift to the federal site, but said the Maryland exchange is improving.

As of Jan. 4, just over 20,350 people had enrolled in private insurance plans on the Maryland health exchange, up 2,100 from the week before, according to a weekly report by exchange officials. The pace of enrollment slowed from recent weeks.

Officials administering the site under the federal Affordable Care Act said they expected the slowdown. The figures were the first reported since the deadline passed to enroll for coverage by Jan. 1.

Those who enroll by Jan. 15 will begin coverage Feb. 1, and open enrollment lasts until the end of March, after which the uninsured face tax penalties.

The state exchange said it is hiring 70 more employees at its call center. The workers will be able to perform new duties, including changing passwords, and help more people enroll, said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, Maryland's health secretary.

"There are still people who want to get insurance," Sharfstein said. "That is why the call center is so busy. That is why there is so much traffic to the website."

About 26,500 people had enrolled through the exchange in Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor, according to the latest numbers, up some 7,000 from the previous week. Tens of thousands more have been found eligible, but officials say many might be duplicate applications.

Nearly 47,000 have enrolled in a health insurance plan through the Maryland exchange so far. Counting the almost 91,600 people that health officials moved automatically from a bare-bones state program to Medicaid, more than 138,000 people have signed up for health coverage, the officials said.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, the state's point person on health reform, is pushing a bill in the General Assembly that would provide retroactive coverage to Marylanders who tried to sign up for insurance but were unable to because of technical problems that have plagued the state website since it launched Oct. 1.

If approved, the measure would help bridge the coverage gap for those who receive large bills in January. Participants would have to sign up for a separate plan that has its own premiums, deductibles and co-pays.

Republican gubernatorial challengers have criticized the plan. They say it is confusing for consumers and would increase bureaucracy and costs. State health officials say it could aid a few hundred to a few thousand people and cost up to $10 million.

Those who do not require financial assistance can avoid the exchange and sign up directly with insurance companies.

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

mcohn@baltsun.com

twitter.com/anwalker

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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