Despite continuing technical glitches, the director of Maryland's troubled health exchange said Tuesday that she believes the state can reach its goal of enrolling roughly a fifth of its uninsured residents by the end of March.
Rebecca Pearce, executive director of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, acknowledged that only about 3,000 people have signed up for private health plans so far. But, she said, the state still projects it can get about 147,000 more enrolled by March 31, the date when uninsured Americans face a tax penalty.
Pearce called it "a hopeful target at this point."
Gov. Martin O'Malley promised last week that the major bugs in the online insurance exchange would be fixed by mid-December. On Tuesday some members of the House Health and Government Operations Committee in Annapolis questioned whether the state could make up the lost ground.
"I'm clearly supportive of the program. I want to make it work," said Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a Democrat from Baltimore County who is a physician. "It looks like you made a dent in that, but there's a long way to go."
Pearce reminded lawmakers that people have until the end of March to buy insurance through the marylandhealthconnection.gov site, which is the vehicle for implementing President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act in Maryland. As the technical problems have been resolved, enrollment has picked up. According to the latest enrollment figures, it increased by more than a third in just a week.
"We still have four months of open enrollment," Pearce said.
Del. Susan Krebs, a Carroll County Republican, asked whether the technical problems could be blamed for the lackluster enrollment. More than 480,000 unique visitors have gone to the site. More than 65,000 people have created the accounts needed to browse for plans, but only 3,024 people have bought them.
"We don't have any evidence of people getting in and saying, 'Yeah, I love this,'" Krebs said. "When are we going to know [if] it's not just a website problem, but a what-you-have-to-offer problem?"
Pearce said that because of the website troubles, officials cannot know that until the end of March.
Meanwhile, the state has expanded the workforce trying to repair the exchange's technical issues and to resolve complaints from residents unable to sign up for insurance.
The state hired an additional 40 people to join the 125 already working in a call center to help walk people through the process of signing up. A team of 150 works around the clock out of a contractor's Linthicum office to resolve IT issues. The contractor has identified a troubled server it needs to rebuild – one of more than 60 that are hosting the exchange at an undisclosed location in North Dakota.
Maryland has paid $69.9 million so far to build the exchange, which is budgeted to cost $107 million, Pearce said.
Some residents, frustrated by delays, turned to paper applications. For three weeks, Pearce said, it was impossible for anyone to enroll in plans online. Until last week, the website problems made it impossible for the state to send information about new enrollees to insurance companies.
The state has 8,500 paper applications for health care that workers need to wade through by Sunday to meet deadlines to get those people insurance by Jan. 1. Not all are from people seeking private insurance. Some are people applying to the state's newly expanded Medicaid program.
As of Tuesday, at least one major glitch still troubled the website. People trying to search for doctors who will accept their new insurance are presented with a screen that says no doctors accept it.
Pearce said she suspects part of the reason Maryland's exchange struggled is that the state tried to be at the forefront of implementing the Affordable Care Act. While other states waited for federal regulations to come out, she said, Maryland tried to press forward to be a model for other states, at times having to re-do work after new regulations came out.
"Ideally, we would have known what the rules were ahead of time," Pearce said. "I think that those states that started earlier may have been slightly disadvantaged."