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Official: Md. looking at health exchange options

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s online health care exchange has some significant problems that are not on track to be corrected by the March 31 deadline for open enrollment, and officials are exploring other options for the second enrollment period starting in November, state officials told a legislative oversight panel on Monday.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the state’s health secretary, told the newly formed panel the alternatives under consideration include adopting technology developed for other states, partnering with the federal exchange and implanting major fixes to Maryland’s current technology.

“We are evaluating alternative options seriously,” Sharfstein said.

Sharfstein said the state plans to stick with the Maryland health exchange through the March 31 deadline for the current enrollment period, as many improvements have been made since it opened Oct. 1 and crashed almost immediately. Sharfstein, however, said the decision to keep using the exchange for now is not a sign Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration is satisfied with the way the system’s information technology is now.

“Far from it. There remain serious IT defects with the system we are using,” Sharfstein said. “These defects are causing frustration for some consumers and are requiring substantial manual work in certain cases to successfully complete enrollments.”

Isabel FitzGerald, the state’s secretary of the Maryland Department of Information Technology, said there are a number of problems “that are reasonably significant that are not on track to be corrected by the 31st of March.”

One of the problems involves a way for people to alter health plans to add a new spouse or baby, said Dori Henry, a spokeswoman for the health department. The exchange also is having problems with automated appeals, which enable people to file an appeal in the system, if they believe the eligibility determination or subsidy calculation they received is wrong.

Martin O'Malley, Thomas V. Mike Miller, Michael Busch

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, center, signs an emergency bill on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, in Annapolis, Md., to enable people who could not enroll in a health insurance plan on the state’s health exchange website for coverage effective Jan. 1 due to computer problems to get retroactive coverage. (AP Photo)

Lawmakers from both parties asked a variety of questions during the hearing in Annapolis, from basic administrative questions about how current enrollment efforts are being addressed to what could happen in the future.

Sen. Barry Glassman, R-Harford, asked Sharfstein for an estimated cost in added expenses incurred by trying to fix the problems with the exchange so far. Sharfstein estimated the added cost to be roughly $22 million.

Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles, asked Sharfstein if the federal government would continue to support the state, if Maryland decides to pursue an alternative course. Sharfstein said the state is working closely with the federal government, so it will be supportive.

“I think that if we have a good plan, we’ll have federal participation,” Sharfstein said.

Sharfstein told the panel that health officials are not setting a deadline for deciding rather to pursue an alternative to the state’s exchange. He said he would keep the panel posted. Sharfstein also said federal officials have told him it is “extremely unlikely” that the federal government will extend the March 31 deadline for the current enrollment period.

Lawmakers have scheduled another hearing in two weeks to get an update on the number of people who are unable to complete the enrollment process. Other topics will include a progress report on how many problems the state exchange has that are believed to fixable and an update on alternatives to the state exchange that are under consideration.

Maryland officials had hoped to enroll 260,000 people by the March 31 deadline, with about 150,000 of them enrolling through private health plans. As of Feb. 1, 29,059 have enrolled in private plans. The state says 140,416 have obtained Medicaid coverage starting Jan. 1.