Maryland's health exchange site running more smoothly, users say

Even as work continues to mend the state's health exchange, enrollment of uninsured Marylanders is going more smoothly and a marketing push is set to get underway, users and state officials said Wednesday.

Gov. Martin O'Malley announced Monday that he was bringing in Columbia-based Optum/QSSI, which worked on fixes for the federal exchange, to help the state's troubled site. The two-month, $4 million contract could be extended and is being largely paid for with federal funds.


The company plans to spend the next few weeks conducting an assessment of the system and "evaluating all potential options," said Dori Henry, a spokeswoman for the state exchange.

After a server crashed and the customer call center became overwhelmed Monday, users reported Tuesday and Wednesday that the online portal has been working more like it's supposed to, without screen freezes and error messages.


"The past couple of days, we've seen some significant improvements," said Kathy Westcoat, executive director of HealthCare Access Maryland, which was hired by the state to help enroll the uninsured.

"It seems to be moving a lot faster. Tuesday was a good day. One navigator enrolled 12 people in a single day, which was unprecedented. Usually, it's been just one to three."

Still, she said, she'd like to see a week of glitch-free enrollments. "I hope it remains consistent," she said.

Dr. Peter Beilenson, who runs Evergreen Health Co-op, which offers its own insurance policies, also said he has seen improvements in the past two days. While most major insurance carriers have agreed to cover policyholders starting Jan. 1 if they enroll by Dec. 27, Beilenson said Evergreen would continue to enroll people before the new year.

"Things have improved significantly, to the point were we are very comfortable extending our enrollment date because we think enough people will be able to enroll before Dec. 31 and that we will be able to get them on target for Jan. 1 service," he said.

Under the federal Affordable Care Act, all Americans must obtain coverage by March 31 to avoid penalties.

O'Malley and exchange officials say there is still work to be done on the website. During a Board of Public Works meeting in Annapolis on Wednesday, he referred to the Oct. 1 launch as a "rocky start," and said that while the major repairs are finished, "there are still many minor fixes."

"We're sorting this out," he said, "and it's getting better by degrees."


The governor, who declared over the weekend that the site was functional for most users, also said Wednesday that the state is starting a marketing push to encourage residents to sign up for insurance through the site.

Almost 30,000 people have enrolled in private plans and Medicaid through the exchange, according to the latest data. New data isn't expected until Friday, but O'Malley said the site had been setting records for the number of enrollments in a single day.

Exchange officials said there were a record 900 enrollments Friday, the day the last major fix was implemented. They said that record was beaten Monday and again on Tuesday, but declined to give numbers because the counts are preliminary.

Exchange officials, O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, the point man on implementing Obamacare in Maryland, declined earlier this week to rule out a move to the federal exchange.

But on Wednesday, Henry said that "switching to the federal exchange would not necessarily be a simple switch that could happen overnight."

"We have to weigh a number of important factors, including timing and cost," she said. "In the meantime, as we continue to examine our options, is getting better every day, with more and more people enrolling in coverage. At this time, our primary focus is getting people covered on Jan. 1."


Emails and documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun through public records requests have shown that some of the problems troubling the exchange website could have been related to a dispute between contractors.

The prime contractor, Noridian Healthcare Solutions, continues to work on the site but fired a key subcontractor in late October. When Noridian then tried to hire some employees crucial to the system from that company, EngagePoint Inc., its officials sued. Noridian filed a countersuit, and the companies were slated for arbitration Wednesday.

"Noridian is currently involved in litigation with a former subcontractor on the project. Because this is ongoing litigation, we are unable to discuss any further details at this time," Tom McGraw, president and CEO of Noridian, said in a statement.

EngagePoint officials didn't respond to a request for comment.

Baltimore Sun staff reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.