White Coat Notes

Applications steady at new state insurance exchange, though not without glitches

A week after the state’s updated health insurance shopping website began the process of enrolling people in coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act, business seems to be moving along steadily though not without some glitches. As of Monday evening, 1,134 people successfully submitted applications for health insurance coverage to begin Jan. 1, said Jason Lefferts, spokesman for the Massachusetts Health Connector.

But problems with the website became a roadblock for some. Johanna Winkelman of Wellesley has tried enrolling in an individual plan nearly every day since the program launched. She hasn’t been able to do so, despite repeated calls to customer service, she said, because the website has stalled out or she has not been able to access pages describing what each plan covers.

“This is a new, complex, very large system,” Lefferts said. “It’s not uncommon and was not unexpected that we would have some bugs and delays in the system.”

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He said the agency is working to address them, while dealing with a high volume of people using the website. In the first week, the site had 1.6 million page views.

The problems did not seem to be quite as widespread as with the federal exchange, launched Oct. 1 for people who live in states without their own virtual insurance marketplace. That system has been plagued with technical troubles, with many consumers unable get through the initial sign-up process without long waits and error messages.

Massachusetts, of course, had a jump on the process. The Connector has operated an online insurance marketplace for individuals and small businesses since 2007, when it was created under state law. But the federal health care law required that system to be overhauled to change the subsidies and plans offered to consumers.

Many people who now have subsidized coverage will be enrolled in a new plan automatically. But those who make between 138 percent and 300 percent of the federal poverty level—between about $32,500 and $70,650 for a family of four—will have to choose a new plan. And those who make up to 400 percent may be eligible for new tax credits.

The new website was designed to streamline the process for people applying for subsidized coverage, allowing them to submit their personal and financial information once and learn instantaneously what program they can use, rather than filling out separate applications for the Connector’s plans and the state Medicaid program.

The process isn’t happening that quickly yet. For now, applicants submit their information online. Within a few weeks, someone from the Connector will contact them to finish the process, Lefferts said.

“As we add functionality to the website, eventually you’ll be able to do the whole thing beginning to end… online,” he said.

Health Care For All, a consumer advocacy group that operates an insurance helpline, received about 150 calls from people last week about the new Connector system, most looking for information rather than logging complaints, a spokeswoman said. That group will join the Connector later this month in knocking on doors to find people who are uninsured, need to re-enroll, or qualify for new subsidies.

For coverage to begin Jan. 1, the enrollment deadline is Dec. 15. Consumers may sign up through the end of March for an exchange plan to start next year.

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