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Md. Exchange Will Work Past Deadline To Finish Enrolling People

If you ran into problems trying to get health insurance on the online exchange, Maryland Health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein says the state will work with you to make sure you get coverage – even if it that process goes past the March 31 deadline for open enrollment.

Maryland’s health exchange board voted Tuesday that as long as residents have tried to apply for coverage and show they’re still interested in signing up by the deadline, they’ll get signed up for coverage starting May 1.

“If they’re having trouble on the computer, they can call a number, they’ll get registered” Dr. Sharfstein said, “someone will reach out to them and we’ll walk them through the process and if necessary we’ll help them enroll manually.”

Since the site crashed on day one, the state has fixed hundreds of glitches and enrolled more than 230,000 people in health insurance plans. But the website is still not functioning properly. State Sen. Joe Getty says he and his fellow republicans saw this coming.

“Many of us were apprehensive that because of the political benefits to the administration of jumping out of the gates and moving forward with the program that it would cause a lot of problems with the final product,” Sen. Getty said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

Much of the work of enrolling people has fallen to connector organizations like HealthCare Access Maryland, which supplies navigators and assistors for the central part of the state. The organization has seen a steady increase in people coming here to sign up as the March 31 deadline gets closer – and they’ve added staff to help clear a backlog of applications.

“We have recently hired a temporary group of people that we’ve trained so they can handle some of the more difficult applications that take a longer time – people that’ve been maybe stuck in the system since October, November,” said Vice President Sheila Mackertich.

Peter Beilenson has also seen an uptick in applications, but his Evergreen Health Cooperative had to change tactics because of the website’s failure

“The exchanges difficulties have completely changed our strategy from going after individuals, which was the requirement under the law, which has been waived, to going after small groups and then eventually large groups as well,” Dr. Beilenson said.

But even with increasing rate of sign ups across the system, Maryland is unlikely to hit its goals. Just 40,000 people have signed up for private health plans. The state had hoped to get about 70,000 people enrolled by the end of the month.

On the other hand, the state has succeeded in expanding Medicaid. Governor Martin O’Malley says he is less focused on what kind of health care people have, but that they are covered.

“The point is that every person matters – every person is needed,” said Gov. O’Malley. “The health of every individual is what we’re seeking to protect here so whether that’s through private plan or Medicaid I’m pretty agnostic.”

But for Republican Congressman Andy Harris, pointing to Medicaid enrollments is just using funny math to make what he calls a $250 million failure look more like a success.

“The bottom line is the main purpose of the exchange was to sign people up for private insurance,” Rep. Harris said. “To include Medicaid sign ups is to do something that would get you in trouble in statistics class.”

But the system worked for Alan Cohen who has been uninsured since he’s been self-employed. He was able to sign up for a private plan, after some trouble with the web site and a couple hours with navigators at the Maryland Health Access in Baltimore. He says he thinks it’s the least expensive insurance he’s ever had, even when he was covered by an employer.

“I think the cost for me is very affordable – it was in line with what my income is right now, which it had not been before,” Cohen said “And I think frankly everyone should have an insurance that they can afford.”

After the enrollment period is over, the state will decide whether to fix it’s broken website – or if it will scrap it and go with another system or even sign on to the federal exchange.