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State hires firm for $10 million to fix insurance website

Governor Deval Patrick unveiled a plan Thursday to fix the flawed Massachusetts Health Connector insurance website, by hiring technology firm Optum to fast-track repairs and appointing a chief executive officer to direct the overhaul.

The state will continue working with CGI, the firm that built the site, but will keep the company on “a much shorter leash,” Patrick said at a Beacon Hill press conference.

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The online insurance marketplace, relaunched in October to comply with the federal Affordable Care Act, has frustrated customers, left some uninsured, and required the state to provide temporary coverage for tens of thousands of people because it could not process enrollment applications.

Optum is the same company that helped get the federal insurance website, HealthCare.gov, back on track last fall. The company will bring in up to 300 people with insurance expertise to enter data from paper applications into the electronic system and to get people enrolled. It will advise the state on what CGI must do to get the online system working as quickly as possible.

“The technology is fixable,” said Andy Slavitt, group executive vice president of Optum. “There’s a lot to do, and there are more resources that are going to be needed, but the right activities are underway.”

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The Connector board approved a plan Thursday afternoon to pay Optum up to $9.8 million over the next month with options to extend the contract. Patrick said the cost of Optum’s services will come from the $68 million set aside for CGI’s contract, of which about $15 million has been paid to the developer.

Sarah Iselin, who has experience in government and project management, will oversee Optum, CGI, and the state agencies working on the project, Patrick announced Thursday. Iselin is former commissioner of the state Division of Health Care Finance and Policy, where she played a major role in implementing the 2006 state health law that created the insurance marketplace and expanded coverage.

Since 2012, she has been chief strategy officer for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, the state’s largest insurer. She is taking a four-month unpaid leave from the company and will return in early June. Iselin said she will hold weekly briefings on progress being made. A Connector spokesman said she will be paid as a Cabinet secretary, meaning she will earn about $50,000 in her four months on the job.

“The point is to catch up on the backlog and deliver a system that will give our residents convenience and confidence when it comes to health care coverage,” Patrick said.

He apologized to people who have been frustrated or confused by problems with the website and offered reassurances.

“Those who have coverage will not lose it,” he said, “and those who are seeking coverage will get it.”

The state is approaching a critical deadline at the end of March. That’s when old Connector assistance programs are supposed to end. About 124,000 people are still enrolled in those programs, though their plans may not comply with federal standards that take effect April 1.

State leaders planned to go to Washington Friday to meet with Marilyn Tavenner, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services administrator, to discuss the possibility of an extension allowing Massachusetts residents to remain enrolled in the old programs while the website is fixed.

A Massachusetts exception could prove politically tricky for Patrick and the Obama administration, though the Associated Press reported Thursday that federal officials are considering whether to allow people across the country to keep plans that do not comply with the federal health law, possibly for up to three more years.

Asked whether he wished he had acted sooner to fix the Connector, Patrick said that the full extent of problems with the website was not clear until the end of November. State officials, however, knew months before the October launch of the website that CGI had repeatedly missed deadlines. Patrick emphasized his disappointment in CGI and its failure to deliver on its contract with the state.

Independent technology firm MITRE, which was asked by the federal government to assess the state program to build the new website, cited significant problems in CGI’s structure and management of the website’s development,in a report released Thursday morning.

It found that the Commonwealth’s team, which included representatives from the Connector, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, also performed poorly. “There does not appear to be a consistent, unified vision for the system nor clear lines of accountability for implementing the vision,” the report said.

The medical school, which had been managing the contract for the state, has been relieved of all duties related to the Connector, Patrick said.

There were signs this week that the website may be getting better incrementally. A small number of people were able to submit their applications online and find out whether they qualified for state assistance.

In an e-mailed statement, a CGI spokeswoman said the company will work with Optum to continue to improve.

“We remain determined to help Massachusetts residents get insured by enrolling in health plans via the Connector, and we fully intend to meet our contractual obligations,” said Linda Odorisio, vice president of global communications.

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