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O'Malley sets mid-December deadline to fix major health site glitches

Laws and LegislationElectionsExecutive BranchBarack ObamaBusiness

Gov. Martin O'Malley said Wednesday that he wants the most glaring glitches in the state's health insurance exchange website resolved by mid-December, potentially allowing thousands more Marylanders to sign up for policies before the end of the year.

The governor announced the goal a day after Maryland Health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein told state lawmakers it is unclear when the site would be entirely free of glitches — an answer that drew criticism from Republicans and some Democrats.

Speaking at his first formal news conference on the state's rocky rollout of the key piece of the Affordable Care Act, the governor acknowledged that the website has frustrated thousands of residents even though the state's implementation of the law had initially been held up as a national model.

"This is a little more complex than going on Amazon and ordering a book," O'Malley said in an apparent reference to President Barack Obama's earlier statements comparing the exchanges to the online retailer. "This launch did not go as we had planned, and we have been fixing it ever since," O'Malley said.

Despite widespread issues with marylandhealthconnection.gov — including some that also occurred on exchanges run by the federal government — O'Malley said there has been significant progress and believes state officials are narrowing the scope of the problem.

A total of 3,024 individuals have enrolled in private insurance plans on the Maryland Health Connection, according to state figures released Wednesday — boosting enrollment by more than a third in a one-week period. More than 65,000 people have created accounts, which are needed to browse plans, and there have been more than 480,000 unique visitors.

The administration's original goal was to sign up 150,000 people, less than a fifth of the state's uninsured, for private coverage by early March.

On Wednesday, O'Malley and other state officials were cautious in setting the mid-December deadline. They did not promise that the site would function for all users or that it would run completely smoothly.

But O'Malley said that the state should be able to address nine major technical problems by next month and that the effort would "fix a majority of the frustration that people are experiencing."

He said some of the site's more exasperating problems, such as its inability to reset a password or reconcile name identification — such as for users who sometimes go by "Tom" and other times use "Thomas" — are fixed. On the other hand, officials remain unsure why the site sometimes freezes.

Senate Minority Leader David Brinkely, a Republican, said he remains unconvinced.

"It's emblematic of all of our concerns with this whole package," he said of Obamacare.

The state recently rolled back the deadline to sign up for coverage that begins next year by eight days to Dec. 23.

Dr. Peter Beilenson, who runs Evergreen Health Cooperative Inc., a nonprofit health insurance provider with plans on the exchange, said that if the site isn't mostly functioning by the middle of next month, it won't give people a lot of time.

"That's a big lift," he said.

Consumers must buy a plan by March to avoid a penalty.

The governor's discussion of the marketplace in Maryland came hours after the Obama administration announced that it would delay by one year the launch of an online insurance marketplace geared to small businesses. In Maryland, the small business exchange had already been delayed until April.

Blown deadlines and technical problems with the federal exchange have become a political liability for Obama, whose job approval rating has slipped since the website opened for business on Oct. 1. The Obama administration also set a deadline and loose performance goals, vowing the federal site will be 80 percent functional by the end of November.

Whether there are similar political ramifications for O'Malley, who is considering a run for president in 2016, or other Maryland Democrats remains unclear. Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has criticized Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, his chief rival in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary, over the flubbed health care website.

Brown, who joined O'Malley on Wednesday, co-chairs a panel overseeing the state's health care reform effort.

Maryland is one of 14 states that chose to build its own exchange rather than handing that responsibility off to the federal government. Several of the state-based exchanges — including those in Kentucky, California and New York — have performed better than the federal websites.

Maryland invested millions of dollars to build the exchange, much of it from federal grants. Asked whether the effort to fix it would cost more money, the governor said, "No doubt there will be some additional costs," but he wasn't prepared to offer specifics.

The governor stood in front of a flow chart that showed how new applications in the exchange are supposed to be processed. He said the site is generally doing a good job communicating with federal agencies — which it must to verify income through the IRS, for instance — but that it still struggles to connect with the private insurance sector that is writing policies.

"There are problems in each piece of it, but there are not as many problems as there were two months ago, not as many problems as there were three weeks ago and not as many problems as there were 48 hours ago," O'Malley said. "It's moving in the right direction."

Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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