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BOSTON — Some of the problems plaguing the new federal health insurance website appear to be popping up in Massachusetts.
Jeff Freedner has been in Commonwealth Care, the state’s subsidized coverage program, since 2010, and he’s generally happy. But now, as Massachusetts merges with Obamacare, he’s among the roughly 150,000 members who have to enroll all over again, under somewhat different federal rules.
So early last month, the 57-year-old artist sat down at his computer in Hyde Park, and logged on to a new Health Connector website.
"The first time [the website] didn’t work at all," he said. "The second time I got in but then it went black. The third time I tried logging on... they were doing some kind of maintenance."
At one point, Freedner couldn’t get past a particular verification page.
"They said I was incarcerated," he said, shrugging. He's never been in jail.
Freedner, who used to design websites, kept trying to complete his application. He had to reset his password several times and may have several applications pending — he's not sure. He got to the end of one application exactly one month ago.
"It seems like it’s finished, but it’s been a month, right?" Freedner said, raising his eyebrows. "And I haven’t heard anything. No confirmation, nothing."
Frustrated Massachusetts residents who think they’ll qualify for subsidized health insurance or hope to continue a subsidized plan are posting similar stories to the Connector’s Facebook page. The Connector staff is posting occasional apologies and on Thursday laid out the problems for the agency’s board.
"Things aren’t perfect," said Scott Devonshire, the Connector’s chief information officer. "Obviously we’re having some issues on the site right now."
In addition to the glitches like those Freedner mentioned, the state has not been able to process any applications yet, because the federal interface that’s supposed to verify an applicant’s income and some other factors isn’t working.
"Nobody is more frustrated by that than us," Devonshire said. "We want everyone who comes to the site to have a first-rate experience. So we are literally working around the clock to try to resolve some of these issues."
The Connector’s $69 million site was built by the same company — CGI — that built the federal website. Connector leaders say the sites are not linked and it doesn’t look like the root problems are the same.
Connector board Chair Glen Shor say he’s focused on fixing the issues in Massachusetts.
"Of course we’re frustrated," Shor said. "We take this extraordinarily seriously. We're proud of what we accomplished and we know how much health insurance means to people. So we want the system to go seamlessly and perfectly and we’re working 'round the clock to make that possible."
The Connector’s call center, where people go for answers to problems with the website, is also on overload. The Connector will almost double the center's staff for the time being.
The 150,000 or so people caught in this hold-up are supposed to choose a new health plan by the end of December or risk losing their coverage. But the Connector said Thursday that it will extend current coverage through the end of March, in keeping with the open enrollment period for the rest of the country.
There is some embarrassment in Massachusetts that the state’s model health care program is succumbing to problems the federal government and many states that are new to this business are having. Brian Rosman, research director at Health Care for All, says Massachusetts tried to add more layers than most states when it designed a new website to comply with Obamacare.
"That’s turning out to be trickier than [the Connector] realized," Rosman said.
Even so, says Rosman, outreach teams organized by his group aren’t hearing a lot of concern from residents they remind to re-enroll.
"We’re not hearing panic or we're hearing modest frustration, sometimes," he said. "But we hear other people who are getting through right away and filling out their forms and pretty happy with it."
So maybe this will be a short-term adjustment as Massachusetts merges with the federal requirements of Obamacare. The Connector aims to clear up problems with its website later this month or in early December.
This program aired on November 14, 2013.
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