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Health exchange glitch sends callers to Seattle pottery business

Hundreds of people who got stuck on Maryland's glitch-ridden health exchange have ended up on the phone with Sue Lunz. And her pottery supply business. In Seattle.

The state mistakenly listed her company's 1-800 number on the website, directing some people who couldn't pick a health insurance provider not to the state's call center, but to a West Coast business that manufactures specialty kilns.

Some days, Lunz said, she gets a handful of frustrated health insurance shoppers, but more often several dozen bombard her small company each day, desperate for assistance navigating an exchange whose technical problems have made it among the worst in the nation.

"At first we were consoling them, but we actually can't say or do anything to help," said Lunz, adding that she can't begin to estimate the cost of her 1-800 bill or the hours spent on the phone. Those are the least of her troubles anyway. "The emotional drag, I don't know how you put a time or dollar figure on that."

The calls started in the fall, after Maryland's site that failed the day it launched was repaired enough for people to begin navigating through it. As more people reached a page where a technical problem made it impossible to select a provider, more people called Seattle Pottery Supply.

"It got worse when the push was really on to get people signed up," Lunz said. "We're keeping our sense of humor about it. We just feel so bad that so many people are having so much trouble. They're so frustrated."

State officials were unaware of the problem until contacted Friday by The Baltimore Sun, which was able to navigate to the page with the incorrect number after logging on to the site several times. The number appears under the words "State Advantage" and "call a representative." The correct number for help shows up multiple times on the site before the incorrect number appears.

A state spokeswoman said officials would look into fixing the problem as soon as possible — and consider whether to reimburse Lunz for the long-distance calls from Maryland.

"We are addressing the incorrect number," Maryland Health Connection spokeswoman Dori Henry said in an email. "We're not aware of any other such situations involving a wrong number on the website."

The mixup drew criticism from the campaign of Doug Gansler, the state attorney general who is running for governor. Among his opponents for the Democratic nomination is Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, a point person in developing Maryland's health exchange.

“Saturday Night Live could not make this up ... " said Katie Hill, deputy communications director for the Gansler campaign. "If this wasn’t such a tragic symbol of the failed leadership of Lt. Governor Anthony Brown, it would be laughable. People who need health insurance haven’t gotten the help they need – and even worse, they have been left footing the $170 million bill for the broken health exchange.”

Maryland officials estimate that thousands of people have been unable to enroll because of technical problems. Insurance carriers have agreed to provide policies retroactive to Jan. 1 to people who enroll before 5 p.m. Tuesday — a deadline originally set for late December.

At first, Beth Perry of Baltimore was delighted to hear Lunz's voice.

Perry, 59, started shopping for insurance Dec. 16 and still hasn't signed up. She said she had spent hours calling and getting busy signals or being placed on hold with the state's call center, which has been overwhelmed and has twice beefed up staff to handle the volume of insurance shoppers in need of help.

Perry joked that she thought she heard angels singing when Lunz picked up the phone on the first ring, only to realize that she heard "pottery supply" instead.

Perry said she has logged on more than 20 times but gets stymied when she reaches the page where she is supposed to pick a service provider. Most times she is directed to call the state's call center. This week, she got a new error message and instructions to call "State Advantage" for help. When she called, Lunz picked up.

"I'm not into blaming anybody, because that doesn't fix anything. But I'm really interested in understanding how some of the really stupid mistakes have been going on," said Perry. "Why are we talking to a lady who has a private business, who is absolutely frustrated with calls from people like me?"

Maryland was one of 14 states that decided to build its own website to sell insurance policies offered under the federal Affordable Care Act. Maryland leaders wanted to build a national model, but instead launched a site that crashed its first day and has fallen far behind in its effort to enroll people in private plans.

The Maryland Health Exchange reported Friday that 22,512 people had signed up for private insurance through its website as of Jan. 11, an increase of about 2,150 from the week before, but still far from the goal of enrolling 150,000 by the end of March.

Next week, Maryland lawmakers are expected to vote on a stopgap plan that would allow people in limbo because of the website's problems to get coverage through a state-run health insurance program. They also have held hearings and plan to hold more on what went wrong.

In the meantime, Lunz said, she'll continue to have empathy for wayward callers who end up on her line.

"We're all in this same boat together, and we really want to make it work," she said. "Most people are so sweet. It's an interesting study in human nature."

But there is one thing she regrets.

"Unfortunately, we weren't smart enough to get the right number," she said. "If you happen to find it, please call back. I'll post it here by the phone, and we'll do our part for Maryland."

According to the health exchange, it's 1-855-642-8572.

Baltimore Sun reporters John Fritze and Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

ecox@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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