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State extends health insurance deadline

“This new timeframe ensures that even more people can get into the best plan . . . in time for January,” Connector executive director Jean Yang said.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

“This new timeframe ensures that even more people can get into the best plan . . . in time for January,” Connector executive director Jean Yang said.

The state has extended to Dec. 31 the deadline to sign up for health insurance through its online marketplace, allowing an extra week for applicants who have battled a website fraught with technical problems and have spent hours waiting for customer service.

Monday had been the deadline to apply for coverage to start Jan. 1. People were scrambling to meet it. The call center was overwhelmed, and the website was working even more slowly than normal because of high volume, Massachusetts Health Connector spokesman Jason Lefferts said Monday.

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Little progress has been made in fixing the website, frustrating thousands of people who are uninsured or whose insurance plan expires this month who may be uninsured in January without coverage through the state. Connector officials said they have put most improvements on hold and have focused on processing applications offline and negotiating the extension with insurers.

“This new timeframe ensures that even more people can get into the best plan for themselves and their family in time for January,” Connector executive director Jean Yang said in a press release.

The decision came on the same day the Obama administration quietly issued a one-day extension for people in more than 30 states who must use the federal insurance website to apply for tax credits created under the Affordable Care Act.

The federal website was plagued by problems at its launch, but has improved significantly in recent weeks. The same cannot be said for the Massachusetts website, once a model for the national marketplace.

The state’s program was overhauled to comply with the federal law and to streamline the application process. But the site has persistently locked users out of their accounts, failed to load pages, and delivered confusing error messages. Major pieces of the enrollment system, including those that would allow people to quickly find out what subsidies they qualify for, have not worked.

‘This new timeframe ensures that even more people can get into the best plan . . . in time for January.’

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The state’s developer, CGI, also played a major role in creating the federal site. The Connector has paid the company about $11 million on a $69 million contract, but withheld scheduled payments in recent weeks because of problems with the website. Yang and her staff are expected to report to the Connector board next month about efforts to hold CGI accountable to its contract.

By Thursday afternoon, just 309 people had paid their first premium to fully enroll in a plan through the Connector. More than 44,000 people have completed applications to date, but many others have faced roadblocks in getting that far.

With the extension, everyone will have until Dec. 31 to complete an application and select the plan in which they would like to enroll.

For the plan to start Jan. 1, those who qualify for new federal tax credits must make their first payment by the end of December, or they will be enrolled in temporary coverage next month through MassHealth.

Those who qualify for ConnectorCare plans, which include some state subsidy, will receive a bill next month for their January and February premium payments.

Most people who fall in the latter group are already enrolled in a state subsidized plan, which will remain in effect through March.

People applying for an unsubsidized plan to begin next month must pay by Jan. 10, a critical deadline. The Connector will not send member information to the insurers until that payment is received, but medical costs accrued at the start of the month will be paid retroactively as long as payment is made in time.

Lefferts said Connector staff worked through the weekend to negotiate the extension.

Once it became clear earlier this month that major portions of the enrollment system, including the automatic delivery of information about new enrollees to insurers, were not working, the carriers began talking with the state about an extension, said Lora Pellegrini, president of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans.

“Plans are committed to getting this done,” she said.

Though it is not clear whether the extension will help her, Leiha Maldonado welcomed the news.

The 36-year-old music therapist from Boston, who is seven months pregnant, buys coverage through her former employer and received help in paying her premium from the state Medical Security Program for the unemployed.

Maldonado’s premium assistance ends this month.

The Medical Security Program offered enrollment in a single health plan, for little or no cost. But that plan does not cover Massachusetts General Hospital, where she planned to deliver her baby.

The therapists she sees regularly for post-traumatic stress are also not included in the network, she said.

Maldonado submitted an application to the Connector on Oct. 13, but has received no information in return, despite her calls to state offices and messages left on the Connector’s Facebook page.

“I haven’t even received an update on the status of my application,” she said. “Nothing in the mail, at all.

“And it’s been two months and 10 days since I applied. I just have never in my life seen such gross incompetence.”

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at chelsea.conaboy@
globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.
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