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Metro

State health care site official blasted

Lawmakers grill Patrick appointee; But Iselin offers no timetable for fixes

Facing a swell of anger from legislators, Governor Deval Patrick’s new point person in charge of fixing the state’s broken health insurance website pledged a Herculean effort, but did not offer an exact timeline or a specific plan for when and how the website will be repaired so people can enroll in the coverage of their choice.

During a State House hearing that lasted more than three hours Wednesday, Sarah Iselin, an insurance executive who Patrick said last week would take the lead in fixing the troubled Massachusetts Health Connector site, said she understands the gravity of the problem, is working to fully grasp its parameters, and will lead an all-out push to fix it.

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“We will be successful both in protecting coverage for those who have it and achieving our goal of having a world-class Exchange website,” she said, adding that her team has and will continue to work nights and weekends to craft a fix.

Iselin faced sometimes emotional questions from lawmakers who telegraphed the fear and anger they said their constituents experienced as they wondered whether they had health insurance or would be on the hook for massive medical costs.

Representative F. Jay Barrows, a Mansfield Republican, was particularly fired up.

“What do I tell the constituent who calls and says: ‘Representative Barrows, I’ve submitted everything, my check’s been cashed, in December. I don’t have my ID card. My doctor won’t see my sick child.’ What do we tell them?” he asked.

The state’s formerly easy-to-use insurance shopping website has barely functioned since it relaunched in October to comply with requirements of President Obama’s health care law, the Affordable Care Act.

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The dysfunctional site has left some people unable to get coverage and others unsure if their applications have gone through or whether their insurance has lapsed.

The problems have required the state to move tens of thousands of people whose applications could not be processed into temporary insurance programs.

“We have had people fall through the cracks,” exclaimed Representative Marjorie C. Decker, a Cambridge Democrat.

“We’ve got people out here that can’t afford to wait while we fix this thing,” said Representative Gloria L. Fox, a Roxbury Democrat.

Again and again, Iselin acknowledged the problems and the impact they have had on individuals’ lives. But she repeatedly emphasized that a fix is not imminent.

“I hear the urgency; I experience it, too. We all do,” she said. “But it’s going to take us a little while to dig out of the hole that we’re in.”

Iselin did not offer a specific timeline for a fully functional website. Neither did she say when the state will improve insurance sign-up workarounds, such as phone centers and paper applications.

She said the state has asked the federal government for a six-month extension to continue the subsidized-care program and a stopgap insurance program, which are due to be phased out by March 31.

Iselin will return to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts after four months and does not expect the project of fixing the website to be fully complete by then, she said.

Pressed by lawmakers about specifics, Iselin repeatedly reminded them that she has only been on the job for a week and is still getting a handle on the problem.

Many of the questions focused on CGI, the company hired to make the new, Affordable Care Act-compliant website, but failed to craft one that functioned.

Iselin said the state has not paid CGI since October. “They’re on a very short leash,” she said.

Senator James T. Welch, chairman of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing, asked a followup question about the company’s efforts.

“I don’t want to speak for them,” Iselin said.

“Somebody’s got to,” the West Springfield Democrat interjected.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Patrick said he, too, is frustrated with CGI. “I’m angry, too, that we didn’t get what we paid for,” he said.

“I think we’ve got a good plan,” he said. “We do not, or have not, had a very good vendor. That’s for sure. But I think we have a very good team in to try to get us back on track.”

The state recently hired technology firm Optum to help with the effort.

“CGI remains determined to help Massachusetts residents get insured by enrolling in health plans via the Connector, and we fully intend to meet our contractual obligations,” CGI spokeswoman Linda F. Odorisio said in a statement.

At the hearing, Welch repeatedly pressed Iselin on whether there was anyone from the state with information technology expertise overseeing the effort.

Iselin said the state is relying on its vendors, but that she would make sure the public is kept informed about the progress.

Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com or on Twitter @jm_bos.

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