Technical problems mar insurance purchase

For a chunk of two recent days, I tried to buy insurance on the Maryland health exchange.

My editors asked me to do this because Gov. Martin O'Malley recently told a national television audience that the "website is now functional for most citizens."


They wanted to know what "functional" meant, especially after hearing stories from consumers about a glitch-prone website created under the Affordable Care Act for the uninsured and underinsured. Marylanders have described frozen screens, lost information, error messages and even mistaken identity.

My own enrollment took 5 hours and 22 minutes over two days, two calls to the exchange's call center, seven times entering my personal information, two computers and two web browsers.


It began 113 days after the site launched, and crashed, on Oct. 1. I logged in, entered my personal information: name, address, Social Security number and other data — and quickly hit my first snag.

Despite being a tax-paying, jury-serving driver in Maryland, the computer couldn't verify my identity.

I retyped my information then called customer service and queued behind 46 others. I ate a sandwich and sent a few emails while a guitar riff looped on the phone receiver. (Officials say this is a long-standing problem in connecting to federal data hub.) An agent eventually created an account for me in about five minutes.

For this, I had to tell her my Social Security number, after having already typed it into the exchange website twice. Security was a main concern of a consultant hired to monitor progress on the exchange's development, but officials later assured me that workers are background-checked and personal information is encrypted in secured databases.

So I re-entered my information again. Then the site froze. Before I could shop for plans, I switched computers twice, and changed browsers — from Firefox, which the call center recommended, to Explorer, suggested by Lawrence E. Burgee, chair of Stevenson University's Department of Information Systems. He teaches a class on the exchanges.

Officials later said Explorer 8 and 10, and Firefox are the preferred browsers.

I was able narrow my search to 12 plans at the "gold," or second-highest, level that would mirror coverage offered by my employer and cover about 80 percent of my bills.

Premiums offered me varied from $286 to $450 a month. A quick scan showed most had approximately $15 co-pays for a doctor visit and $1,500 deductibles. I picked the low end and did the same for dental coverage.


I wasn't able to pick a doctor, a link officials later said is still not functional. Also not yet fixed is a glitch that made it appear that I had two accounts; the exchange wanted to know how I was related to myself.

When I finally hit the enroll button, an error message said the first name in my electronic signature didn't match the first name of the client seeking coverage. Huh?

That was where I gave up for the night. On day two, I went right to the phone queue for customer service, and another agent determined I was using an electronic application meant only for those receiving subsidies. According to the customer service rep, I had tapped on "click here to apply now" in large letters at the top of the page and not on "purchase plans without financial assistance" in smaller type to the side.

She directed me to delete my account and start over, re-entering my information and search parameters before it offered plans, which were inexplicably slightly cheaper.

At 2:20 p.m. on Jan. 23, my application for $250-a-month medical coverage and $16-a-month dental coverage was "successfully submitted."

Officials later told me that, despite my experience, frozen screens have been greatly reduced since fixes were applied in December. And personal data should be retained as users log in and out, though mine never was.


Exchange spokeswoman Dori Henry would not say whether 5 hours and 22 minutes was a reasonable time frame to enroll. She said that varies for users depending on such factors as how many members of the family need coverage and how long they take to peruse their options.

But she said, "We've seen a dramatic reduction in the number of incidents reported from the call center with respect to issues related to getting through the system. … Navigators and assisters report that in the majority of cases, the site now functions smoothly for users."

That's largely backed up by Kathy Westcoat, who heads a team of navigators helping people enroll at HealthCare Access Maryland. "In the past two weeks we've really turned the corner. That's not to say we're totally out of the woods," she said.

Individuals are still coming in with problems. But she said her professionals, armed with training, experience and special access, now can get 85 percent of clients enrolled in 20-45 minutes.

Some progress also is reflected in enrollments. Almost 25,200 people have enrolled in private plans through the exchange since Oct. 1, up almost 7,000 in the last three weeks — though that is far below the goal of 150,000 by the March 31 end of the open enrollment.

Exchange officials say thousands of Marylanders still may be stuck in limbo between account creation and electronic signature. The officials have worked with four insurers to offer retroactive coverage back to Jan. 1. By the Jan. 21 deadline, 1,407 households had requested the benefit by phone.


Still, Professor Burgee at Stevenson said my experience should make authorities "ashamed and embarrassed."

"The political answer of 'the site is working for most users' is absurd!" he wrote in an email. "Your personal account shows (once again) that the website is at best shaky and unstable, at worst a security nightmare. The real problem here is now you really don't have a reasonable alternative to the Maryland Health Exchange."