O'Malley still dogged by insurance exchange woes

Governor's optimism about signups not reflected in 'paying customers'

Gov. Martin O'Malley

Gov. Martin O'Malley makes the traditional visit to the House on the first day of the General Assembly as Speaker Mike Busch, left, looks on. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun / January 8, 2014)

One chortles at Governor O'Maryland's response to Candy Crowley on CNN when she asked if he had been asleep at the switch during the development of this state's botched-and-still-botchy health insurance exchange. "Oh, no," the governor said. And I have to agree.

It wasn't that Martin O'Malley was asleep at the switch. It's that he was in Israel or Brazil, or New Hampshire or Texas or South Carolina, or any of the many other places he visited during the last three years as a second-term governor and chair of the Democratic Governors Association, trying to make himself a viable presidential candidate.

When the cat's away, the mice will ... ignore warning signs of big trouble ahead.

O'Malley might have forged his reputation as a data-driven, results-focused Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor, but when it came to the development of a state-based website to facilitate the biggest change in health law in half a century, he left someone else in charge — to wit, his lieutenant governor, Anthony G. Brown.

Only about two months into the Obamacare rollout, when it was clear the website was a mess, did O'Malley take a high-profile position on the insurance expansion. And yet he persists in saying he was on top of things and that things are going to be just swell any day now.

The record shows that on O'Malley's watch, the state had close to three years and more than $100 million in taxpayer funds to prepare for the enrollment of the estimated 800,000 Marylanders without insurance. The O'Malley administration promoted itself as proactive, ahead of the other states whose governors had opted to develop their own exchanges rather than rely on the federal government's.

And the record further shows that, as of Friday, only 20,358 Marylanders had been able to sign up for private insurance in the more than three months since the program started.

Many more signed up for Medicaid, but that's the relatively easy part of this whole thing — getting low-income families to take advantage of that federal program's expansion. The tough part, and truly the test of the long-term success of Obamacare, is getting paying customers to sign up, the many thousands of uninsured or underinsured who are not eligible for Medicaid.

Maryland Health Connection is adding 70 additional staff members at its consumer support center.

So it's possible that the processing will pick up and O'Malley's optimistic outlook will be fulfilled.

But, obviously, there are still problems with the Maryland Health Connection system.

On Friday, I received the following from Vicki Rapoport, who lives in Elkridge:

"I started the process of signing up for health insurance beginning on October 1. On October 22, I thought I was successful in enrolling through Maryland Health Connection. I was given a reference number and told I was the first successful enrollee in Howard County . ...

"To this date, I am not in the system and have no insurance. ... Today, I received an email from Maryland Health Connection stating I need to pay the premium before January 15 in order to have coverage. I have the money to buy insurance, but my right to have insurance is being denied by the state. If I had slipped on the ice today and broke something, I would not have been able to seek medical attention as I have no insurance."

Rapoport hopes Healthy Howard, the program that's been helping her find an affordable policy, will be able to bypass the health exchange website and get her enrolled the old-fashioned way, on paper.

Carol Siegel was finally able to get insurance — within a week or so after I reported on her problems in this column, in early December. Siegel had help from someone in the governor's office. (Of course, she might still be waiting for a policy had she not squawked to The Baltimore Sun.)

After putting up with the frustrations of the state's web site for more than two months, Siegel ended up with much better health insurance. "My high-deductible plan has gone from $5,000 [annually] to $1,500, and my max out-of-pocket from $6,000 to $2,500. The cost, with my tax subsidy, is $109 a month. Without the subsidy it would have been $527.

"This wasn't too bad compared to what it was like before [the Affordable Care Act]. You have to be very persistent and keep checking and calling. This is not automatic, not easy."

Siegel added this: "All the people I dealt with were professional, patient and very kind."

Readers might also recall Walter Regner, the self-employed landscaper from Baltimore County whose problems with the exchange were described in my column of Dec. 16.

Regner knew he would have to pay for insurance — he was not eligible for Medicaid — and was eager to do so. But he was frustrated, even after O'Malley claimed that the state's web site was "functional for most citizens."

Regner has been unresponsive to phone calls and emails since then. I hope he's OK. Walter, let me know how you made out.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

drodricks@baltsun.com

 
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