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The federal government has granted Massachusetts a three-month extension to meet the requirements of the Affordable Care Act, giving the state more time to correct its troubled health insurance website and deal with tens of thousands of unprocessed applications, state officials said Thursday.
The waiver from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services extends a March 31 deadline until June 30. The state asked CMS for a six-month extension, but had not expected to receive more than three months of extra time. Officials would not rule out the possibility of seeking future extensions while it works on a permanent fix.
"We're not going to in any way, shape or form let this extension take our foot off the gas," said Sarah Iselin, a health care executive hired by the state last week to coordinate a response to the technical problems that have plagued the site.
Iselin and connector officials briefed the board Thursday on the scope of the issues that have stymied thousands of Massachusetts residents attempting to sign up for or transition to ACA-compliant insurance plans.
The website, officials said, is incompatible with some popular browsers, riddled with error messages and navigational problems, and occasionally becomes "sluggish," or stops working altogether.
The breakdowns have necessitated a series of manual "workarounds," leaving Massachusetts Health Connector employees to deal with a massive stack of 50,000 paper applications, each requiring about two hours of staff time to process. Officials were unable to say how many of those applicants were currently uninsured.
"Many of them are waiting for coverage and we need to prioritize," said Jean Yang, executive director of the connector, who at one point became emotional while describing the toll the crisis was taking on her staff.
News of the Massachusetts waiver comes after a senior federal official told reporters during a call on Wednesday that no general extension of the open enrollment period was under consideration.
Julie Bataille, communications director for the health care rollout, said President Barack Obama's administration has been clear that the open enrollment period will end March 31. The administration is counting on the deadline to drive a spike in signups toward the end of March.
The waiver means that about 124,000 people previously enrolled in the state's subsidized Commonwealth Care program will retain their coverage through June 30, and about 31,000 new applicants for subsidized coverage will continue in a temporary program through that date, connector officials explained.
The extension does not apply to about 32,000 with non-group, unsubsidized plans that expire before March 31, they said, and those residents are being offered a "fast path" to new coverage.
The problems began last year after the state hired CGI Group to create a new website to serve as a portal for re-enrolling residents into ACA-compliant plans. CGI was also the top contractor on the troubled federal website.
Massachusetts has boasted of having a 97 percent coverage rate under its first-in-the-nation 2006 universal health care law that became a model for the federal law. State officials say the website glitches have not caused that percentage to fall substantially, but they have acknowledged that many residents are confused or anxious about the status of their coverage.
Lawmakers at a legislative oversight hearing on Thursday told of constituents who enrolled for coverage - and even had their payment checks cashed by the state - but never received ID cards and were told by doctors they had no insurance.
"We know we are not where we need to be. We are disappointed to be in this position and we are determined and committed to fixing it," Iselin told reporters after Thursday's meeting.
In addition to hiring Iselin, who is reporting directly to Gov. Deval Patrick, the state has also contracted with the health care technology firm Optum to identify a permanent website fix. Optum is being paid nearly $10 million for the first month of service, with future payments to be determined.
It has yet to be determined whether CGI, which has not been paid by the state since October, will remain a vendor, Iselin said.
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