Consumers, advocates seek health insurance work-arounds

If there is a good health insurance plan out there for Baltimore scientist Luke Goembel, it's as big a mystery as the space he studies.

Goembel, a self-employed physical chemist who has worked for the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and NASA, says he has tried to assess his options on the state's new health insurance exchange. But computer problems have prevented him from getting the user name and password he needs to gain access to the website.

He and some advocates for the new marketplace — which aims to cover 800,000 uninsured Marylanders, plus the underinsured — are pressing the state to provide more information on the plans as they wait for glitches to be resolved.

Currently, consumers can get bottom-line costs only if they register online or if they go see a state-sanctioned "navigator" who can provide a paper application.

Goembel said he would prefer to spend the hours he expects it will take to review the choices at home at his convenience.

"We can't figure out why the costs of the plans are not freely available on the Web," said Goembel, who lives in Idlewylde. "I actually Googled for an hour or so and only found vague references to 'typical ranges in costs,' none that applied to my family's situation of a family of four, two school-age children and parents in their 50s.

"We have absolutely no idea whether or not we will be paying considerably more as some news reports suggest, or considerably less for insurance comparable to the pitifully inadequate insurance we have now."

The state responded to such concerns late Wednesday by adding information about sample premiums and basics for each participating insurer, such as deductibles and network doctors, where it may be seen without logging in. Users still need an account if they want to calculate their specific costs.

Officials said they're continuing to upgrade the system, taking it down in some overnight hours for fixes.

"We are encouraged by the level of interest across the state, and are working hard to identify and resolve issues," Maryland Health Secretary Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, chairman of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, said in a statement.

The state reported earlier this week that more than 174,000 users had visited the site, but less than 8 percent created accounts. About 326 enrolled. It's unclear how many faced technical troubles.

Officials at HealthCare Access, a nonprofit group that helps to enroll consumers in the exchange, said they've heard from people who have been stymied online. Kathleen Westcoat, the group's chief executive, agreed that removing barriers to information would be useful.

At a promotional event Wednesday, Westcoat said she remained optimistic about the law, which she said will mean better health and financial security for so many.

She was joined by Dr. Oxiris Barbot, Baltimore's health commissioner, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at the headquarters of health provider Chase Brexton. They called for patience as the computer problems are addressed.

Rawlings-Blake called the Affordable Care Act a "hard-fought achievement for our country" that will "ensure access to quality and affordable health insurance for so many Baltimore residents who have been locked out of the system."

"We must work every day to ensure families know what their options are under this new law and that they are able to take advantage of the many reforms it provides," she said.

Consumers have until March to sign up, though they must enroll by mid-December to begin coverage in January. The state projects 150,000 people will buy coverage in the first year and another 100,000 will be added to the Medicaid rolls.

Goembel noted that even a tenfold increase in the current rate of enrollment wouldn't get them there.

"Somebody better get the thing fixed," he said.

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