Customer service started a paper application for him on Oct. 18.

Over the next month, Goembel finally was able to create an account, but before he could buy a plan for his family of four with subsidies, he had to repeatedly call for help, enter the same information over and over online, tolerate error messages and recheck his eligibility for assistance three times.

Eventually, the family was enrolled in a plan significantly better and 40 percent cheaper than his previous coverage, with dental insurance.

Still, he's angry about the delays. "The Maryland system is severely flawed," he says. "The state was sold a bill of goods."

The dispute

Soon after the website's launch, emails among the contractors and exchange officials began to focus more on the dispute between Noridian and EngagePoint.

Chuck Milligan, who heads the state's Medicaid program, whose recipients will eventually use the exchange, complained that the contractors were too distracted by a new argument over who should be the state's prime contractor. The companies had proposed that EngagePoint take over as the prime contractor, but state officials said there was no time to consider such a shift.

"We do not have time to waste," he emailed the contractors. "We hope your email was not intended to convey that the team will not proceed with conviction while it awaits the resolution of the prime issue."

The top executive at Noridian also stepped in by mid-month, holding a meeting with contractors, state officials and consultants it hired from McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm. McKinsey was hired at the state's suggestion, but paid for by Noridian.

Paul von Ebers, CEO of Noridian Mutual Insurance Co., Noridian's parent company, wrote on Oct. 10 that the consultants "expressed concern with ongoing coordination issues between the Noridian and EngagePoint teams." He requested a meeting to resolve "working differences" between the companies.

This was days before Noridian fired EngagePoint, sparking the angry email exchanges and dueling lawsuits between the companies. Noridian then sought to hire EngagePoint workers; EngagePoint sued and was met with a counter-suit.

"We are expected to do piecemeal work for Noridian after contract termination because you just woke up and decided you don't know what you are doing?" Goel wrote Oct. 26. "We are not going to respond to ridiculous emails from Noridian demanding our team members show up for work after being escorted out of the office."

Noridian's McGraw declined to be interviewed but said in a statement that his company was responsible for designing and implementing the system. It is a work in progress, he added.

"The complexity of this project has led to a number of major issues beyond what was anticipated; one example is federal regulations that redefined the system's requirements during development," he said in the statement. "Noridian and subcontractors have been working to systematically identify the cause and resolve each issue."

He declined to comment on the litigation with EngagePoint.

Goel, the EngagePoint CEO, said in a telephone interview that he was never told his company's work was unsatisfactory. The conflict with Noridian at first involved the way the project was being managed, he said.

After EngagePoint's firing, the companies battled over $6 million that EngagePoint said it is owed for work, Goel said. He also said Noridian wants to hold EngagePoint responsible for certain financial obligations, such as potential state penalties for missing performance goals, even though it is no longer part of the contract.

Goel said problems with the exchange lie with the complexity of the job, connecting federal, state and insurer sites for the first time ever.

"It's not like Legos where everything is designed by the same company and fits beautifully," he said. "You're trying to get all the pieces to talk to each other."

He admits that emotions were running high immediately after the firing, but said he wants the exchange to succeed and has given Noridian information when asked.

EngagePoint also has contracts to work on exchanges in other states, including Minnesota. A spokeswoman for the Minnesota exchange said officials in that state have been happy with the company's work.

Improvements have been made to Maryland's website, officials said, including easing the firewall, increasing memory and rewriting code to reduce errors. Combined, they have made the site "far more functional" than it was on Oct. 1, Sharfstein said.

As of Friday, 3,758 people were enrolled in private insurance plans. More than 97,000 are expected to gain coverage under Medicaid. And officials maintain that their goal is to sign up 150,000 in private plans by the March 31 deadline for Americans to buy insurance or face a penalty.

Larry Burgee, an associate professor of information systems at Stevenson University, says Maryland could have avoided problems with better planning. For example, states should not have all tried to create their own sites but rather should have pooled resources, tested a few systems and all gone with the best, said Burgee, who teaches a class on the federal exchange website.

He added, "All this money was spent, and in Maryland we hear about two companies fighting. ... People at the top need to take the fall for this."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

andrea.walker@baltsun.com