Technical problems continued to frustrate people attempting to access the new state health insurance exchange on Friday
The issues with marylandhealthconnection.gov, the online exchange set up under national health reform, prompted some analysts to suggest that the system's software and servers aren't robust enough.
"They seem to be building this system on the go," said Robert Laszewski, a Washington-based insurance industry consultant. "It was not adequately tested, and it was not ready for prime time. That is perfectly clear."
Consumers are supposed to be able to visit Maryland Health Connection, create an individual account and browse a variety of health insurance plans before buying one, much as they would book an airline flight. The exchange was created to provide a place for Maryland's 800,000 uninsured to find health coverage.
Problems began immediately after the exchange launched Tuesday, as people tried to create accounts and log onto the site.
State officials blamed the account creation process, in which people were routed to a federal questionnaire to verify their identity. The system, they said, became overwhelmed when so many people tried to access it.
But even after logging onto the site, many people complained about encountering error messages, frozen screens and other problems.
It is unclear how many people have been able to enroll in plans. Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, the quasi-state agency that oversees the exchange, said it will not have a count until next week.
Other states, including those with sites run by the federal government, have had similar problems that stem from servers and software that couldn't handle a large number of users.
Maryland officials warned that there might be problems with the site before it launched and have been working to address issues.
Critics, including Laszewski, said the system should have been built to handle a high volume of users.
Technicians have made improvements to the website that have allowed more people to create accounts, and they plan the first upgrade of the software in the next few days, Becca Pearce, the exchange's executive director, said in a statement.
During upgrades, users won't be able to access certain parts of the site. The site will also be taken down every night between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. to fix problems.
Pearce said that as problems are fixed, others crop up.
"The first few days of live use of Maryland Health Connection has helped us identify ways in which we can make the system better," she said. "We remain focused on continuing to steadily improve the user experience, and we will continue to provide timely information to users."
Pearce did not respond to questions about problems with the software.
Noridian Healthcare Solutions LLC, the North Dakota information technology company under contract to build the software, did not return calls.
The Maryland Health Benefit Exchange agreed to a $65 million contract with Noridian last year, saying in board minutes that the company had "an excellent technical proposal and strong software solutions."
But several outsiders think the problems lie with the software.
Requiring people to create accounts to access the system may be one of the problems, said Jonathan Wu, co-founder of consumer finance website ValuePenguin, who has a computer science background. Some states, including Kentucky, let people browse insurance plans without an account, which was only needed to purchase insurance. Kentucky did not have as big a backlog, he said.