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Health Insurance Hassle: Massachusetts Portal Can't Handle Macs

If Franz Kafka were writing in 21st-century Massachusetts, he might have penned a tale like this:

J., an educated and technologically capable man, went online to the state’s “health information portal” hoping to create an electronic account for Commonwealth Care, a subsidized insurance plan. He entered his name, social security number and date of birth. But the site spat back at him, “ReferenceError: Can’t find variable: ActiveXObject.” He tried again, and yet again. Finally, he called the functionaries responsible for the site, and after many minutes untangling the bureaucracy, received this answer: You cannot create an account on a Mac. You cannot use Firefox or Safari or Google Chrome. You can only use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. This is a problem we hope to fix soon.

Sadly, Kafka is not here to do it justice, but this tale is true. When Jeff, a Hyde Park resident, first shared it, I confess that I doubted him. Can’t be! When was the last time I heard of an official Website that could only work with certain browsers? A decade or so ago??

So I tried it, on a Mac. I got the same error message. Try it yourself using Safari, Firefox or Chrome. Here’s the link. Hit the "Log In" button for Commonwealth Care, then try to Create a Login.

I called the Connector, the agency that helps Massachusetts residents shop for and obtain our (mandatory) insurance, and that manages the site that contains the health information portal. To be clear: You can use any browser to shop for and compare insurance on the Connector's user-friendly site. And you cannot sign up with any browser for the Commonwealth Care program; you have to do it by mail. But if you're already signed up and want to manage your account, you need Explorer.

Spokesman Richard Powers confirmed that the portal, which launched in June 2010, can only work with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. The vendor that created it was Dell, he said. In his words:

"Our vendor’s product was initially written exclusively for Microsoft products and, in that sense, was somewhat outdated. It has always been their intention to upgrade the system to be compatible with other browsers such as Firefox 3.6, Apple Safari 5.0 and Google Chrome 9.0. We’re hoping to have that work completed by the end of the summer."

Um — “somewhat outdated”??! Flamers, where are you? What do you have to say about a state that creates a Website in A.D. 2010 that cannot interact with any browser but Explorer? Please comment below. I can tell you that in an informal poll of the tech types I know, the word I heard most often was “Ridiculous!” The close runner up was “You’ve got to be kidding!” Though, they say, it's not at all unheard-of, it's just outdated.

Again, any browser can be used to explore and shop for insurance on the Connector’s broader site, Richard Powers emphasized. It’s just the “health information portal” — which about 36,000 Commonwealth Care members use to register, pay a premium or change a health plan during open enrollment — that has the browser limitations.

Sounds like a nice, convenient online interface — if you have a PC, that is. Jeff messaged CommonHealth:

I find this to be kind of absurd. If Amazon can get this right why can't the State of Massachusetts? Actually every other state web site works with any browser. It's only Commonwealth Care that's so messed up.
They have been telling me for over a year now that they are trying to fix this. It's amazing that this was even a problem in the first place.
The other issue is that not many people use Microsoft's Explorer due to all the security issues it has. Most people use Firefox.

Security issues? Oh, you mean like today’s reports of the potential leakage of personal information on more than 200,000 residents on the state’s unemployment rolls? Maybe it’s not actually so great to have a workable interface with state-run agencies.
[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“If it’s not deliberate, how is it possible that people are that incompetent?” he asked.
[/module]Now, a computer inconvenience is not a great tragedy. But it is just one element in Jeff’s epic tale of trying to get the health insurance that Massachusetts requires of all residents. Even he calls it “a little Kafkaesque.”

It sometimes seemed to him, over the months he struggled with the bureaucracy and the faxed documents it demanded, as if the state were using any excuse to deny him care. “If it’s not deliberate, how is it possible that people are that incompetent?” he asked.

It began at the end of last summer, when he started trying to sign up for state-subsidized health insurance in the wake of a divorce. He found he couldn’t do it himself online, so he sought help from a kind financial officer at his local health center.

In all, it took him six months to get insurance, during which he worried that he might eventually be fined for lacking it. Along the way, the state twice lost all his paperwork. Now that he finally, happily, has Commonwealth Care at $154 a month, he must pay his bill by snail mail; it is not on the list of entities that can receive an automatic transfer from his Bank of America account.

This program aired on May 18, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.

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