Problems continue for Maryland insurance exchange

'This ought to be easy, says frustrated Catonsville woman

A supporter of Obamacare eager to avail herself of the opportunity it provides for better coverage, Carol Siegel enjoyed smooth sailing on Maryland's online health insurance exchange — and then she didn't.

After a promising start, she ran aground, and no one — not Gov. Martin O'Malley and not his point man on Obamacare, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown — has been able to dislodge Siegel from the shoals yet. She's still waiting for new insurance.

"I'm not impressed," she says.

And Siegel, as I say, is a supporter of the Affordable Care Act, and not just for personal reasons. She's a general advocate of accessible health care for everyone. But problems with the federal health insurance exchange and with the one created in Maryland have been embarrassments to progressives who defend government as a force for a better society.

"Maryland is experiencing major problems with its website, and people are getting very frustrated," Siegel posted to the ACA Obamacare Success Stories Facebook page. "Until these problems are fixed, it will be almost impossible to advocate for ACA. The detractors are laughing at us and hoping that the problems continue. This must be fixed soon, or we will lose what support we have."

Siegel is 61 and healthy. She works part time at multiple jobs; she's a sign painter, an artist and an English teacher at the Community College of Baltimore County. She pays $215 a month for a catastrophic health insurance policy. Being familiar with the ACA, she knew she could do better. She wanted a more comprehensive plan with a lower deductible.

"And I need insurance just for me, no one else," she says. "This ought to be easy."

At the start, in October, it was.

On Oct. 3, two days after the Obamacare rollout, Siegel was able to set up an account and register on Maryland's health insurance exchange. "It took about 15 minutes for the pages to load and go forward," she noted in a diary she kept of her ACA adventures and shared with me.

Three weeks later, she took the next step. The state's website told her that, based on her income and other factors, she would be eligible, through tax credits, for an 87 percent premium reduction. That pleased her.

"For years, I have spent between 20 and 25 percent of my income on health insurance premiums," Siegel noted. "If this actually comes to pass, I will be able to help the economy by getting the home repairs we need, buying some new clothes, going to more music events and out to dinner once in a while. The possibilities are endless for this lowly adjunct professor/sign painter. I have a ton of insurance choices and maybe even a dental plan! I'm becoming giddy."

In November, Siegel was ready for the next step: choosing the best of several plans available to her through the exchange. But suddenly, while she was online, things went kerflooey.

"I tried to choose a plan, but the website had nuked all the previous information I had entered," Siegel reported on Nov. 19.

Unbowed, she started entering information again. This time, the website apparently created a new Carol Siegel — not one eligible for tax credits to offset the cost of her insurance, but a Carol Siegel eligible for Medicaid, the federal program for the poor that has been expanded to include more people under the ACA.

So her smooth-sailing days were over.

Frustrated with the on-line experience, Siegel decided to go old school. On Nov. 23, she reported on Facebook her intention to apply for the exchange through the mail. But an FB friend warned against it: "I mailed in my paper application on October 10th. To this date, I have not heard back."

Siegel responded: "If a paper application is offered as a viable option, then it should work. It must work."

Alas, as of this writing, Siegel still doesn't have the insurance she wants, even after spending additional hours online. And to top it off, her password for the Maryland website has expired. For now, she'll just keep her present policy with CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.

"I'm so disappointed in Maryland," she wrote in a recent Facebook post. "It's hard to defend ACA and advocate for it when I can't even get enrolled myself. How can I help my neighbors get signed up — as we have been asked to do — when I can't do it myself? ... It's been a personal embarrassment and has left me open to ridicule from my right-wing friends and acquaintances."

Most of Siegel's friends, I take it, are supportive of Obamacare. Several of them need insurance or a policy upgrade. But they're not making a move yet. "They're waiting to hear from me," Siegel says. "They say, 'When it's working, when you're in, let us know, then we'll sign up.'"

Whenever that might be.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.



Your weekly dose of health news, tips and events for Maryland
See a sample | Sign up