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State delays small-business health marketplace

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Continued technical problems with the state's health insurance exchange have prompted another delay of the opening of a site for small businesses to buy health plans.

Citing the problems on marylandhealthconnection.gov, which include sluggish navigation and error messages, state officials also postponed when the exchange would begin collecting payments from people who have already bought plans.

The state exchange is where uninsured Marylanders — estimated to number 800,000 — can buy health plans under the Affordable Care Act.

The delays were announced at a meeting Friday of the board that oversees the exchange. Health Secretary Joshua M. Sharfstein said it would give technicians time to fix core problems that persist with the site, which as of last week had signed up 4,500 households in health plans.

The state declined to release enrollment numbers this week because it is retooling the way it reports those figures to include breakdowns of the types of plans people chose. They will resume reporting the number of enrollees next week.

Technicians, meanwhile, will focus on improving the experience of people who use the website by making it faster and more reliable, and reducing error messages. They will also update software to improve the accuracy of what plans and subsidies enrollees are eligible for.

The state will also spend the next two weeks transmitting secure enrollment data to Medicaid.

Sharfstein re-emphasized that the state is not happy with the progress of improvements to the site. He said he doesn't expect the delays of the small-business market and payment system to significantly hurt health reform efforts.

This is the second delay for the small-business marketplace. Initially, it was to launch in October and then January, but now will open April 1. Bill payment could begin at the end of this month, Sharfstein said.

"We had always expected to have very slow enrollment in the first year, and a few extra months in the big picture has very little impact," Sharfstein said.

The small-business health insurance program now offered by the state is not that different from what an exchange will provide. Delaying its opening, the exchange board said, will give more time for testing and coordination.

The head of the National Federation of Independent Business Maryland said small businesses would prefer the delay to work out the kinks.

"It is better to delay than to move forward with a program or website that continues to have problems and will add to the lack of confidence that clearly exists in the small-business community about the federal health care law," said Ellen Valentino, the group's state director.

The individual exchange faced problems immediately after its opening Oct.1 as many people faced frozen screens when they tried to create accounts. Exchanges run by the federal government for many states also faced technical problems.

Maryland's exchange has seen slow improvements. The site has had 400,000 unique visitors since its launch, and 54,000 people have called its call centers. More than 37,000 have learned if they qualify for financial assistance and 83,991 have qualified to enroll in the expanded Medicaid.

State health officials believe many people will window shop and purchase plans in mid-December, the deadline for enrollment for coverage effective Jan. 1. The final enrollment deadline is March 31.

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ankwalker

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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