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Pressure mounts to fix Mass. health site

Health policy analysts are calling for greater urgency in fixing the state’s broken insurance website, after a report released this week showed Massachusetts far behind in signing people up for new plans under the Affordable Care Act. But, they said, the state is primed to quickly improve its standing compared with other states if it can get the technology working.

The state’s easy-to-use insurance shopping website, overseen by the Massachusetts Health Connector Authority, was a model for the national program. But the site has barely functioned since it relaunched Oct. 1 to comply with the federal law, leaving customers frustrated and requiring the Connector to create manual and paper-based alternatives.

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The rollout of the new Connector website has been “a serious implementation failure,” said John McDonough, a Harvard health policy professor who had a hand in crafting both the 2006 state health law that created the Connector and the Affordable Care Act.

In the first three months of enrollment,5,428 people in Massachusetts were able to select a new plan through the Connector website, a Health and Human Services report said. That is far fewer than the 117,500 the state was expected to enroll by the end of December, as outlined in a September memo by Marilyn Tavenner, head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

According to a New York Times analysis, Massachusetts has made the least progress of any state on its sign-up goal, at just 5 percent of its target. State leaders have disputed the numbers, saying they overstate the state’s enrollment projection and do not account for tens of thousands of people temporarily covered by the Connector while it works out problems with the website.

Still, the numbers offer perspective on just how much progress the Connector must make before the end of March, when open enrollment under the federal law ends.

“I so want this to go perfectly well,” said McDonough, who also is a Boston.com blogger. “I want nothing except for this to succeed, so I have just shut my mouth for 3½ months now.”

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But, McDonough said, political leaders have been slow to act, and he faults the Patrick administration for not being more transparent.

“Why are we the worst of the worst?” he said. “And what is the plan to fix this as rapidly as possible?”

The governor has directed the Connector to explore the state’s legal options for holding CGI accountable to its contract, Patrick spokeswoman Heather Johnson said in an e-mail.

“The governor has been clear that CGI’s failure to deliver a website that meets the needs of consumers is entirely unacceptable,” she said.

An independent technology firm is expected to complete a review of the Connector website Friday and will make recommendations about steps for fixing it.

Glen Shor, Connector board chairman and state secretary of administration and finance, called the state ranking “inaccurate and misleading.” The federal memo’s enrollment goal was too high, he said. Last year, Connector staff projected enrollment at just over 200,000 by June 2014. The Tavenner memo set the goal at 250,000 people by the end of March. That figure was provided by the state, said a Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services spokeswoman.

The ranking does not account for 124,000 people in Massachusetts already enrolled in state assistance programs whose coverage has been continued through March, Shor said.

The state has provided temporary Medicaid coverage for about 28,000 others who have applied for new subsidies for buying health insurance but whose applications have not yetbeen processed.

All of those people must be moved into new plans through the Connector system by the end of March.

No matter what difference there is in state and federal goals, “we look bad,” said Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist and a member of the Connector board.

If the website gets fixed, however, the tens of thousands of people waiting on temporary coverage could be moved quickly to new plans, he said. Massachusetts would jump in the state rankings.

Getting the website fixed is the key, he said, though there is a real risk that won’t happen by the end of March.

“This is not devastating news,” he said. “This does not mean health care reform has failed in Massachusetts. This just means it’s going a little slower than we want.”

The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Health Care Financing is working to schedule a hearing on the Connector within the next few weeks, said Senator James Welch, cochairman and a West Springfield Democrat.

Meanwhile, the consumer group Health Care for All has been working with the state to respond to frustrated customers on Twitter and Facebook.

Executive director Amy Whitcomb Slemmer said she believes state officials are working hard to get people the coverage they need.

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