From left, Stephanie Baptiste, Jaime Thomas, and Pamela Williams are among the 14 new navigators who will help people sign up for insurance coverage with the Maryland Health Exchange.
From left, Stephanie Baptiste, Jaime Thomas, and Pamela Williams are among the 14 new navigators who will help people sign up for insurance coverage with the Maryland Health Exchange. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

Maryland's health insurance exchange has been tested and is ready for consumers to begin buying policies Saturday during the first enrollment fair of the season, according to Isabel FitzGerald, the state's information technology secretary brought in to ready the online portal.

"The only thing left to do is go live on the 15th," she told the exchange board Wednesday during its last scheduled meeting before the new website's launch.

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The marketplace was created in Maryland under the federal Affordable Care Act to sell insurance plans to those who couldn't get coverage from their employers, but the site crashed at the start of the inaugural open enrollment period in October 2013 and worked so poorly that enrollment was extended farther into 2014.

FitzGerald said the revamped site was tested as much as possible in the short time since the board voted in April to scrap the old site and adopt technology used on the more successful Connecticut exchange. But some processes couldn't be fully vetted, such as actual consumers verifying their identities and income through a federal hub, a source of problems last year.

The hub allows the state exchange to determine what subsidies consumers would be eligible to receive. About 80 percent of the approximately 81,000 of those buying private policies on the exchange last year qualified for subsidies. Almost 377,000 others qualified for Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor.

And while FitzGerald sounded confident in the new system, she said officials were likely to discover issues they hadn't foreseen.

"I fully expect when we go live to find things we want to change or defects," she told the board. "I suspect somewhere in the code there will be some references to Connecticut."

The exchange decided to allow early browsing, but not buying, this week, and about 18,000 people have logged on, officials said. One enrollment fair is planned in Glen Burnie on Saturday and the public will have access to the site beginning Nov. 19.

The staggered rollout is designed to allow a team to address problems before the site can be overwhelmed with users.

Advertising also will begin this week with spots airing on local cable channels just ahead of nearby enrollment fairs. There will also be print ads, social media outreach and other targeted marketing such as banners aimed at younger consumers on games including Angry Birds, according to Andrew Ratner, director of marketing and outreach for the exchange.

The effort will be more targeted because there is less money to spend, he said. The budget is down this year to almost $4 million, from about $7 million last year. The challenge is reaching people who don't know about open enrollment, particularly those who have not had insurance in years or ever.

In other actions, the board extended or altered several contracts worth millions on an emergency basis, partially so officials could keep using vendors familiar with the Connecticut technology, said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, chair of the exchange board and the state's health secretary.

According to online records from the exchange, the board has approved more than $355 million worth of contracts since 2011, including about $41 million to retrofit the new site, though not all of that money has been spent.

The board also heard about a rating system for the insurance plans on the Maryland exchange available to consumers. Most were given three to four stars out of five from an independent state panel.

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