BOSTON — Persistent technical problems that have complicated the efforts of tens of thousands of residents trying to sign up for health coverage through the state’s new Obamacare website have forced Massachusetts health officials to move on to Plan B in an effort to ensure that residents who need new policies by the end of the month don’t see a lapse in coverage.
Health Connector officials also appear to be losing their patience with vendor CGI, the same information technology company responsible for the federal health connector website that has failed to deliver the type of system envisioned when the state and UMass Medical School signed a $69 million contract to build the site.
The state’s health insurance exchange website — mahealthconnector.org — was taken down Wednesday afternoon for scheduled fixes and maintenance. CGI was due to make upgrades to the glitch-plagued website and install new functions, such as real-time eligibility determination and enrollment processes.
The site was scheduled to be down from 2 p.m. until 5 a.m. yesterday, but Health Connector executive director Jean Yang said yesterday that it was put back online at 9:45 p.m. when the vendor reported that the upgrades were not working correctly.
“Obviously, we are just a couple weeks before [Jan. 1] and everyone’s focus is on coverage for [Jan. 1]. The highest priority for the health connector is to ensure that everyone who needs coverage for [Jan. 1] will be able to have the coverage they need without delay or gaps ... We believe we have a path to achieve that,” Yang told the Connector board at its monthly meeting.
Health Connector officials said they planned to come back to the board in January with recommendations to hold CGI accountable for “the failures to date.” In the meantime, the Connector has boosted its call-center staff from 65 in October to 155 and plans to add more employees through December.
Asked during a break in the meeting whether accountability meant withholding payment from CGI, officials declined to comment. So far, CGI has been paid about $11 million for the development of the website with the rest of the money due “on delivery.”
Since its launch on Oct. 1, the state’s Obamacare website has been riddled with technical issues that have made it difficult for consumers to navigate and enroll in new health plans under the Affordable Care Act. In addition to login difficulties, time-outs and random error messages, users still cannot use the website as planned to determine their eligibility for subsidies or shop for and enroll in health plans.
“The overall system performance is far from where it needs to be, which has compromised user experience and our ability to rely on the website to effectuate enrollment,” said Roni Mansur, deputy executive director and chief operating officer of the Health Connector. “We know that users are frustrated across the market.”
A spokeswoman for CGI did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
As of yesterday, 95,205 people had created an account through the website, and 93,436 customers had started their online applications, but only 34,690 applications have been submitted to the Connector. That total is up from 18,625 in mid-November.
Yang said the Connector has started to manually process applications for subsidized coverage plans, while more than 1,000 invoices have been sent to non-subsidized coverage enrollees to complete their enrollment by making a payment.
Unable to rely on the website to enroll subscribers for the Jan. 1 start-date of many new ACA health plans, Connector officials say have begun pulling the information submitted on applications from the new online system and independently running it through the eligibility determination system so that applicants can be notified by mail or over the phone of their options and proceed with enrollment.
If all applications cannot be processed in time to guarantee coverage for Jan. 1, Connector officials said customers would be offered temporary access to coverage through “legacy systems” until their ACA plan enrollment is completed.
“Even with these IT challenges, we have created pathways to ensure here in Massachusetts coverage will not be delayed or lost as we transition to ACA,” Mansur said.
With the first ACA deadline looming in 19 days, Health Connector Deputy Executive Director Ashley Hague reported that 130,000 Commonwealth Care members newly eligible under the Affordable Care Act for Medicaid coverage will be automatically transferred on Jan. 1.
Another 90,000 Commonwealth Care members who must reapply for subsidized coverage plans will continue to have access to their current health plans through the federal open enrollment deadline of March 31, according to Hague. Letters to Commonwealth Care subscribers were sent out Monday informing consumers that their coverage would remain in effect through the end of March.
“Our vendor really has not gotten us to where we need to be,” Hague told the board on Thursday, as she presented the alternative plan.
Of the nearly 35,000 people who have successfully submitted new applications, officials said about half are new to the Connector while others may overlap with other populations, including those who are being automatically transferred to MassHealth.
Despite the headaches created by the ill-functioning website, Gov. Deval Patrick has largely tried to put a positive spin on the transition in Massachusetts to the Affordable Care Act. In early December, the governor said the experience for consumers was “getting better every day.” Mansur on Thursday said the functionality of the website since its launch in October has been “mostly static.”
Administration and Finance Secretary Glen Shor, a Patrick appointee who chairs the Connector Board, admitted frustration on Thursday and expressed optimism that the website delays would not impact the number of insured residents in Massachusetts, which he predicted would grow come Jan. 1.
“We are frustrated with the IT vendor’s performance, and it’s a serious concern, but what you see here is a drive to work harder to compensate for their deficiencies,” Shor said. “The website is a path for getting ACA-complaint health coverage, and the preferred path, but in light of deficiencies we have put in place alternative paths.”
Shor also praised the cooperation of insurance carriers, who he said have been working with state officials to make sure customers maintain coverage through the transition.
“In other parts of the country and other places I think we see an unfortunate pattern of finger-pointing and blame games. In Massachusetts, the whole experience of health reform has been characterized by the opposite,” he said.