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Health Health Care

Enrollments on Md. health exchange jump, though site still glitchy

Gov. Martin O'Malley said Monday that 42,589 people had signed up for insurance through the state's health exchange as of Dec. 21 — a jump of almost 13,000 people in a week — but the faster clip of sign-ups was temporarily stymied by more troubles with the website.

Users on the site were met midday Monday with a "service unavailable" message, and by afternoon a new message said: "We are currently undergoing scheduled maintenance. We apologize for any inconvenience and appreciate your patience."

The site came back online by 4 p.m., and an exchange spokeswoman said there were two separate problems that may have been related to high volume of users.

Still, the problems frustrated users who face a deadline to sign up for coverage by Jan. 1. The deadline was initially Monday, but the four insurers on Maryland's online exchange agreed to delay the date until Dec. 27. One, Evergreen Health Co-op, delayed the deadline until Dec. 31.

Officials from the federal exchange, which serves consumers in three dozen states, on Monday pushed back its deadline until Christmas Eve.

The move gives consumers more time to sign up for coverage starting in the new year, though open enrollment lasts until March 31. That's when Americans can start to be penalized for not having insurance.

Consumers can purchase plans directly from insurers instead of through the exchange but can only qualify for potential subsidies by using the exchange.

The state set a goal of enrolling 150,000 people in private plans and 110,000 in Medicaid during open enrollment. Of those signed up for coverage so far in Maryland, about 11,700 have signed up for private plans, with the rest on track for Medicaid, according to O'Malley.

Officials at the exchange have said that the numbers are preliminary and some of the Medicaid enrollees may be duplicates or they may not have submitted all of their required paperwork.

Dr. Peter Beilenson, who runs Evergreen, said the site had been working better in recent days, with a small number able to enroll each day. But he said it still is unreliable, and that is frustrating for his clients. He has about 36 appointments a day with people who want insurance.

"We all agreed to move back our deadline, but what good does it do if we can't get on the site?" Beilenson said.

Users like Evergreen and state-hired "navigators," who rely on an internal portal to help people enroll, were affected by the first problem impacting the website, said Dori Henry, a spokeswoman for the exchange. A separate problem affected the public when there was an issue with the third party that hosts the exchange homepage and other informational pages, she said.

In the past, "scheduled maintenance" has occurred only overnight.

Earlier in the day, O'Malley said that while nine major glitches were fixed, the site still needs many minor fixes. He has said previously that state officials would consider a move to the federal exchange if that was the best option for getting people coverage.

Other users said Monday they have been frustrated since the site launched Oct. 1.

Robert Michael Johnson of Towson said he's been trying to enroll his son Samuel, who turns 26 on Jan. 5 and will no longer be allowed to continue on his parents' insurance. His son's employer doesn't offer coverage, but he needs the insurance for continuing treatments and daily medications.

"Today, for the 10th time since it opened we tried to enroll our son in [Maryland's] health care website," he wrote in an email to The Sun. "The website was nonexistent. It started with the opening page, then nothing."

Johnson said he went in person Monday to a Baltimore County social services office for help enrolling but had to fill out a paper application after the agent told him that she could not get on the site either.

"We tried to enroll by website, phone and in person today with no success," he said Monday. "I understand the deadline has been extended to Dec. 27," he said, adding that he wonders if the outcome will be any different.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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