Despite progress, Obamacare enrollment still hellish for some

I haven't visited Health Insurance Hell for a while, so I thought I'd stop and see how things are going. It's not so bad: At least 4.2 million new enrollees through federal and state Obamacare websites, with at least 1 million more expected through March 31, the deadline for getting insurance and avoiding a tax penalty.

So, not as good as projected, but hardly the disaster Republicans keep saying it is.

In addition to the federal, the state health insurance exchanges have picked up steam, too. As NPR reported: "The [state] exchanges have mostly put behind them their very sorry starts, when enrollments were often counted in the tens or hundreds."

Well, the key word there is "mostly." Maryland still isn't racking up the big numbers of paying customers that our cocky governor claimed we would see by now.

We have plenty of people getting Medicaid — 193,670, as of March 11, according to the state. That's the easy part of this deal: providing government-funded insurance for people who can't otherwise afford it.

But Maryland still only has about 40,690 paying customers — people who enrolled in private health plans through Maryland Health Connection, the website that hasn't worked well (and sometimes not at all) since the day it launched in October.

Forty thousand is still well below the original projections for that group.

Plus, Maryland could end up spending something like $260 million in taxpayer funds for a website that doesn't work and for all the expenses that had to go into signing people up in other ways. The state hired an additional 200 call-center workers because of the glitches.

"A lot of elbow grease has gone into getting people enrolled," Joshua Sharfstein, the state health secretary, said Friday. "We've done several thousand enrollments by hand. There's been a huge effort to get where we are."

But, as Sharfstein knows, this wouldn't have been necessary had the state's online marketplace — three years in the making, one day in the breaking — worked.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown was the O'Malley administration's point man on Obamacare's rollout in Maryland, but I didn't see any mention of that in his new campaign ads. They're swell TV spots that give you the impression that Anthony Brown is a good guy. But is he competent to be governor? The brief, sorry history of Maryland's health insurance exchange doesn't exactly float the voter's boat.

With all the bad publicity, it's likely many Marylanders decided to just stay away from Obamacare for now, despite the looming tax penalty, to avoid the hassle of trying to enroll.

Of course, I've heard from several people who had no problem at all, and people who had some problems yet managed to score better policies at lower costs than the ones they had.

But I hear from as many people who are frustrated and angry.

Consider Elaine Blanchard, a spa employee who lives in White Marsh.

"I enrolled through Maryland Health Connection's website in December to obtain coverage for my daughter and me," she told me. "It said I was enrolled [in CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield] and said we would be covered as of January 1. Since then, I have not received anything — no enrollment information, no benefits info, no cards, zilch.

"I called the Maryland Health Connection hundreds of times to inquire about it. They just give me the same old story: 'You have to contact CareFirst.' I have also tried hundreds of times to contact [CareFirst]; they never pick up.

"My daughter and I qualify for subsidies. We desperately need health insurance. I just got a letter from Maryland Health Connection saying they've canceled my enrollments due to non-payment.

"I can't believe this. It's a never ending-nightmare. I have [screen shots] and printouts saying we are 'enrolled and covered.' I called MHC and they said my case is pending and they don't know why."

I passed Blanchard's problem along to Sharfstein's office and someone there contacted her Friday morning. Blanchard seemed optimistic about getting things resolved.

Then I heard from CareFirst.

The carrier said its review of Blanchard's case showed that she received a bill "in a timely manner" and failed to pay it. As a result, her coverage was not activated.

Apparently this kind of thing has been common.

"The exchange process is cumbersome, plagued with miscues, and we have been flooded with calls and inquiries as a result," CareFirst said in a statement. "We have tripled staff to manage the call volume, but given the compressed enrollment period it will remain difficult to manage the volume. ... We are working intensely with the exchange to manage the customer service crush all this has created."

I didn't have the heart to call Blanchard back with CareFirst's version of what happened to her policy. She'd already been through a lot; the last thing she needed was to hear again that she hadn't paid her bill. I'm sure she never received it. These things happen in Health Insurance Hell.

Lord, deliver us, and soon.

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

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