Health exchange continues to enroll consumers in insurance

Almost 18,680 people asked for more time to sign up for insurance through the state's health exchange because they had trouble with the website during open enrollment, but exchange officials said Tuesday that many have already had their issues addressed.

About 4,000 of those have been enrolled in person or on the phone by an agent hired by the exchange, many others likely have enrolled on their own online, and officials assume that some on the list are duplicates.

But everyone left on the list to be enrolled has been contacted by phone or email, and the majority should be helped by April 18, in time for insurance to begin May 1, officials said during the exchange's board meeting.

"There may be some stragglers, but we're going to help everyone even if it's after April 18," said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, chairman of the exchange board and the state health secretary.

Only those with a change in family or work status, however, will be able to ask to enroll after April 18.

In all, almost 313,700 have enrolled for coverage through the exchange in Maryland under the Affordable Care Act, about 80 percent in Medicaid. Tens of thousands more have enrolled directly with insurers.

Technical problems have stymied many people who tried to buy policies online after the Oct. 1 launch. And even after many issues were fixed, thousands who had tried to enroll early remained stuck in the system.

Officials announced at the end of open enrollment March 31 that they would scrap the website and adopt technology used in Connecticut.

Isabel FitzGerald, state information technology secretary, stepped in to oversee the end of open enrollment and the changeover. She said the state plans to keep using the old system until the new system is working, and that process is on schedule.

With the next open enrollment in November, there is little time. There are some things that the new system won't do, such as allow consumers to enroll directly in dental plans. They will have to go to insurers' websites for that.

Sharfstein said he expected to enroll consumers who qualify for Medicaid directly through the exchange website, something that can't fully be done on the Connecticut exchange now. Consumers there sign up online, but staff members have to manually retype the applications because the exchange and Medicaid systems aren't yet linked.

And while Maryland is taking a system largely "as is," there is pressure to get it plugged in properly, tested and working with the state's insurers and the federal system that determines eligibility for subsidies.

FitzGerald has split the exchange staff in two. One is focusing on maintenance of the existing website with Optum/QSSI serving as the prime contractor under a contract worth up to $14 million. The other side will focus on the new system, with Deloitte Consulting as the lead contractor under a contract worth between $40 million and $50 million.

"We have a time line that won't move," Fitzgerald told the board.

Also during the meeting Tuesday, the board supported negotiating a contract worth no more than $150,000 with Audacious Inquiry for consulting on the state's online system for small businesses, called SHOP. The firm is based in the UMBC research and technology park and has other state contracts.

Financial officials reported Tuesday that the exchange has spent about $130 million so far, most of it federal dollars. While there is still money in the current budget, the state also recently approved an additional $49 million for the exchange.

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