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With the next open enrollment period set for Nov. 15, Gov. Deval Patrick on Monday said the state's troubled health care exchange website is fixed, at a cost of an additional $26 million to the state, bringing the federal and state total to $254 million in information technology costs.
The $254 million covers calendar years 2011 to 2015, and is $80 million higher than the original $174 million estimate to build the site, according to a Patrick administration spokeswoman. The state's share of the cost is $42 million, up from the original $16 million.
Addressing attendees of a hearing on health care cost trends at Suffolk University Law School, Patrick said the additional $26 million is "significant," but "not the hundreds of millions or billion dollar figures that some have bandied about."
In a September report, The Pioneer Institute, a think tank critical of the state's efforts, estimated that taxpayers will have spent $600 million to implement a new health exchange, on top of $540 million for a temporary Medicaid program to insure residents who were prevented from signing up for health insurance due to problems with the website.
Patrick administration officials responded dismissively to the report after its release, and Patrick himself issued a statement condemning the report while traveling on a trade mission.
On Monday, Patrick acknowledged the site was a "terrible disappointment" during last year's transition to the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA), but said the state has enrolled more than 400,000 people in both subsidized and unsubsidized coverage programs.
"You should also know that we have done so within original budget projections," Patrick said. "Let me repeat: implementation of the ACA in Massachusetts, even with the website failures, has not blown the health care budget. I have read a number of accounts purporting to show that we have spent more on health care under the ACA than we forecast; in fact, we were right on track with our original projections and did not require any supplemental appropriation from the Legislature."
Joshua Archambault, a senior fellow at the Pioneer Institute, called Monday's estimate "far too narrow." "It is similar to a student mistaking his out-of-pocket expenses as the only expense for attending the local university," he said.
"But it should not be lost, that this is $254 million spent not on healthcare, but on consultants," he added in an email. "Not on education or roads, but on software. Taxpayers want to know the total paid, incurred, and projected cost of this project, not just the state share as calculated for a narrow subset of the project."
Consumers who log onto the Health Care Connector website will have a "full end-to-end shopping experience" for health plans on Nov. 15, Patrick said.
"With the full functionality of the website for small businesses, which has continued without issue, Massachusetts consumers will be able to shop for, and enroll in, all available Connector health plans online this fall," Patrick added.
Patrick said getting small businesses to use the site remains challenging.
"Many small businesses still fail to shop to compare premium rates, leaving them vulnerable to the annual merry-go-round of premium increases followed by shifting to plans that offer less coverage at the same premium," Patrick said. "Changing the culture so that small businesses shop consistently and compare plans thoughtfully will make the market more competitive and, most importantly, benefit the businesses and their employees."
Consumers will also be able to access MassHealth through the website if they are eligible. Patrick said the administration's original target for that had been late 2015. "I want you to know that that the team is optimistic that we will reach that milestone this fall as well, almost a full year sooner than expected," he said.
During the "rough start" to the transition to the federal Affordable Care Act, Patrick said "no one lost coverage." "That point has been lost in the upset over the website," Patrick added.
The Patrick administration tapped Optum as the new vendor to replace the original contractor, CGI, and added staff to eliminate a backlog of paper applications.
Patrick said further details about the costs and the website will be provided at the next Connector Authority board meeting by Maydad Cohen, appointed by the governor to oversee the website after its initial troubles.
The next board meeting is set for Oct. 9 at 8 a.m. at One Ashburton Place in Boston.
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