Less than two days after Gov. Martin O'Malley declared that the state's online insurance marketplace finally worked for most consumers, a server crashed Monday, the call center became overwhelmed and the governor announced he was bringing in another contractor to improve the website.
Some consumers and advocacy groups reported Monday that the website where consumers can buy health plans under the federal Affordable Care Act is easier to navigate. But others said they are still running into frozen screens, error messages and other problems that have plagued Maryland Health Connection since it launched Oct. 1.
"It's crashing all over the place," said Peter Beilenson, who has served in local health departments and now runs the insurance co-op Evergreen Health Cooperative Inc. He spoke after several failed attempts to enroll people through the exchange. "It's stopping at various parts. Bottom line, no, not functional."
O'Malley's administration has faced intense criticism over the glitch-prone online portal, which has had one of the worst rollouts in the country. On Monday, Republicans called for a special committee with subpoena powers to investigate what went wrong.
The Democratic governor pledged a number of new initiatives Monday after announcing Saturday night that nine "major issues" with the exchange had been fixed and that the site was "functional for most citizens."
As part of the announcement, he and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown said the state hired Columbia-based Optum/QSSI, an information technology company that helped fix the federal exchange. And they said CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, Maryland's largest insurer, had agreed to extend the deadline to enroll for coverage beginning Jan. 1.
In addition, they said exchange officials would keep the call center open longer and reach out to consumers who have begun, but not completed, the enrollment process.
"It's not glitch-free, but functional for most users," O'Malley said of the exchange. "It's not perfect by any means."
Some fellow Democrats, including Rep. John Delaney, have questioned whether more extreme remedies are needed, such as scrapping the state exchange and joining the federal one. States had the option to create their own websites to help people buy private insurance, and Maryland was one of the first to embrace the idea.
O'Malley and Brown, the point man on efforts to implement Obamacare in Maryland, did not rule out a move to the federal exchange.
"We're for whatever works," O'Malley said.
"We're keeping our options open," said Brown, who is running to replace term-limited O'Malley in next year's election.
Already, state officials have brought on new leadership for the exchange, asking Isabel FitzGerald, secretary of the Maryland Department of Information Technology, to lead the IT effort.
Last week, Brown declined to say when state officials would complete the nine fixes identified by O'Malley, who set a mid-December deadline to complete them. Then, two days later, O'Malley said he would meet the self-imposed deadline, and his spokeswoman said that meant by Dec. 20. Both have said they did not know of the extent of the problems before the site's launch but now get daily updates.
On Monday, O'Malley blamed some continued glitches on problems with a federal hub over the weekend, though he added that most people were not affected. The state site must interface with multiple parties, including insurers and the federal government.
Then a server went down for an hour Monday afternoon, which also might have caused some problems for users, said Dori Henry, a spokeswoman for the exchange. The server was taken down manually and will be fixed. And some consumers experienced busy signals Monday when phoning the call center, which happens when lines reach capacity, Henry said.
Henry said exchange staff monitor call center tickets daily and are not seeing tickets related to issues previously seen, such as the screen freezing on the enrollment button.
The glitches add frustration to stress, as people rush to get coverage by the first of year. That deadline for CareFirst insurance has been extended to Dec. 27. For other insurance plans, the deadline is Dec. 23, though state officials said they are discussing similar extensions with other carriers.
Sheila Mackertich, who heads enrollment efforts for HealthCare Access Maryland, said Monday she faced the same problems that have persisted with the site since it launched — frozen screens, enrollment errors and sluggishness.
"We were not successful at moving people through," she said.