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‘Soft launch’ for health exchange?

State officials have been saying for months that Marylanders will be able to shop for insurance on the refurbished health exchange by Nov. 15 when open enrollment begins.

That might not be entirely true. State officials appear to have been considering the possibility of a soft launch, meaning the new version of Maryland Health Connection would be unveiled in stages rather than all at once on Nov. 15.

If officials do a soft launch, the exchange website might only be available to a limited number of people at first. It could then be gradually opened up to everyone else over subsequent days.

But it’s not clear whether officials are actually planning to pursue that option.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, chairman of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange board, said last week the soft launch option had been put on the table by Isabel FitzGerald, the state’s secretary of information technology, who is leading the exchange project.

Sharfstein said then the board had yet to discuss the possibility of a soft launch.

However, FitzGerald presented a “Status Update” report during last week’s board meeting that included a line saying the IT team was “finalizing soft launch schedule.”

And, during her testimony July 15 before the Joint Oversight Committee in Annapolis, FitzGerald also referenced her intention to do a “soft launch.”

FitzGerald was unavailable to comment Monday, and Sharfstein referred questions to spokesman Chris Garrett, who said he had no comments about the soft launch option. When asked if the language in FitzGerald’s status report indicates that she is, in fact, planning to do a soft launch, Garrett said he “could not characterize that.”

Garrett said the exchange board will discuss the soft launch option at an “upcoming” board meeting. He declined to specify whether the issue would be discussed during the next regular in-person meeting on Sept. 16, or during a special phone-in meeting called for Tuesday at 4 p.m.

The goal of a soft launch — also called a beta test — is to minimize any issues that may crop up when the system goes live. Beta tests are considered a best practice for many IT projects, particularly large and complex ones like the health exchange.

Officials said the process of replacing the technology underlying the original, flawed health exchange is still on schedule. Sharfstein said the decision to do a soft launch would not be prompted by any “lack of confidence” in the new system, but rather a desire to be overly cautious.