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Brown: No promises on health exchange

More than two months after the launch of Maryland’s health insurance exchange, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown said at a news conference Tuesday that its performance continues to disappoint state officials but offered few specifics on how or when the website’s problems will be resolved.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (center) held a press conference Tuesday to discuss leadership changes and progress at Maryland Health Connection. He was joined by Carolyn Quattrocki, left, who on Friday was named interim executive director of the exchange, and Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, right, secretary of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. (The Daily Record Photo/Maximilian Franz)

The conference came five days after Rebecca Pearce, the exchange’s executive director, resigned. The announcement was made late Friday evening.

Brown, flanked by officials tapped recently to try to step in and save the faltering exchange — the Maryland Health Connection — promised to launch a full review of “why and how the exchange did not meet its goals” once the biggest problems are fixed.

Brown said 40 employees have been added to answer phones in the customer support center and said the contractors hired to design and implement the exchange had stepped up their efforts, too.

But neither Brown nor Carolyn A. Quattrocki, the exchange’s interim director, would estimate when the website will work properly or say whether the state’s self-imposed deadline of Dec. 15 — four days away — is feasible.

Both officials repeatedly didn’t directly respond to questions about the deadline, saying they would continue to evaluate the situation and provide regular updates.

Brown, who is running for governor, said his most immediate concern is getting the exchange to work and to get information to insurance carriers about the people who sign up for private health plans.

To that end, Isabel FitzGerald, the secretary of the Maryland Department of Information Technology, has been brought in to lead efforts to address the exchange’s technical problems. FitzGerald was not present at the news conference because she was working on the website, Brown said.

“We are committed to getting this right,” Brown said. “As soon as we get through this and solve the major problems of the website, we are going to have a complete and thorough assessment to determine exactly what went wrong.”

The state’s original goal of enrolling 150,000 Marylanders within the first year continues to be the focus, Brown said, although he declined to comment on whether he thinks that target is within reach. State officials said late Tuesday that only 5,179 people had signed up as of Dec. 7, less than 4 percent of the goal.

Brown said the numbers do show an increase over the last few weeks, including 1,421 in the week leading up to Dec. 7 alone — the largest weekly increase since the launch. He also said IT crews had made “modest improvements” to help people use the site, and he said progress had been made on reducing technical glitches.

But one of the most glaring issues with the exchange has been that insurers do not always receive enrollment information from customers who thought they’d successfully signed up for coverage.

Brown said there has been progress on that issue, but said information on only about 4,000 of the 5,200 people who signed up has actually been sent to insurers.

“Let me just underscore that while this demonstrates an improvement in the rate of progress, no one here and no one working at the exchange is satisfied,” he said. “We still have a considerable amount of work left to do.”

Some consumers have been bypassing the exchange and using paper applications to enroll for coverage. But the paper forms don’t ask for all the information needed to sign up.

Officials have been working to contact those people via email, robo-calls and other methods to collect any missing information, Brown said.

Quattrocki, who also heads the Governor’s Office of Health Care Reform, said an addendum was recently attached to these for people who choose paper applications in the future.

Brown said he first became aware of problems related to the website in September but didn’t consider them alarming. In the weeks leading up to the launch of the site in October, he and other officials held public events extolling it.

“The first indications that I received and that was received in the office of the governor was in September, sometime at the end of September,” Brown said. “And that report was that there would be difficulties experienced because of the volume and level of interest, and with … unique and less frequent cases, like maybe a Native American family seeking eligibility [or a] family of five seeking eligibility.”

Brown insisted he wasn’t aware of any problems “that amounted to what we saw Oct. 1.”

The site was “a real big mess” when it debuted, he said, adding that he’s proud of the steps officials have taken to address many of those problems over the past two months.

One of those steps was to shake up the leadership, starting with replacing Pearce as executive director. Pearce came under fire for taking a week-long vacation in the Cayman Islands over Thanksgiving while other state officials briefed legislators on the exchange.

She was also criticized for not being present at a news conference held by Brown and Gov. Martin O’Malley before Thanksgiving. Officials have not said whether Pearce was asked to step down.

Other officials from across the state were also brought in to help at the exchange, including Jonathan Kromm, the deputy director of the Governor’s Office on Health Care Reform, who is leading the cross-agency project management team, and Michael Powell, Maryland’s chief innovation officer.

Asked why no one made changes earlier even though officials were aware of the website’s problems, Brown said it took time “to peel back the layers” and find the people “best suited and able to drive the project to completion.”