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Connector chief brought to tears describing backlog

Cherif Kamel and his wife Carol McCorkindale have been affected by problems with the Massachusetts Health Connector.

Barry Chin/Globe staff/file

Cherif Kamel and his wife Carol McCorkindale have been affected by problems with the Massachusetts Health Connector.

The head of the state’s beleaguered health insurance marketplace, which was once a national model, broke down in tears Thursday, as she described how demoralizing it has been for her staff to struggle with a broken website that has left an unknown number of people without coverage.

Jean Yang, the executive director of the Massachusetts Health Connector, wept at a board meeting, where it was disclosed that 50,000 applications for health insurance are sitting in a pile, and have yet to be entered into a computer system.

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Each one of those applications requires two hours to process, adding to a mountain of work facing Connector staff as they scramble to prevent people from losing insurance, officials said.

“These people came here to lead and innovate, and instead they’re doing manual workarounds, and they are embarrassed to tell friends and family that they work for the Health Connector,” Yang said at the board meeting.

Yang made clear she was not looking for sympathy.

“We have to work harder,” she said. “That means I need tell the staff members they’re not doing a good enough job and I’m telling them that, even though they have been doing this tirelessly for months, and they’re exhausted.”

The state’s health insurance website was working smoothly until October, when it was revamped to comply with the more complicated requirements of the federal health care law. Since then, it has been bedeviled by error messages and is often very sluggish or crashes entirely, officials said. That prompted the state to resort to old-fashioned paper applications, and to put many people in to temporary health plans. But an unknown number of others may be uninsured because of the paperwork backlog.

Sarah Iselin, a health insurance executive charged with fixing the state’s broken website, said the first order of business is winnowing that pile of 50,000 applications. She said the state may bring as many as 300 people from an outside company hired by the state. The state is also working on developing a faster data-entry system, though that task alone could take three weeks, she said.

“We’ve got to catch up,” Iselin said. “That’s priority number one. We have to get those people into the system.”

Yang’s unusual display of emotion at a meeting normally focused on dry policy discussions came a day after she and other state health insurance officials were grilled by angry legislators, who complained bitterly that many of their constituents have been unable to find coverage.

Yang said those concerns have been driving her and her staff to lose sleep. “The market cannot wait and people need help,” she said. “That’s what keeps me up at night.”

Dolores L. Mitchell, a Connector board member, thanked Yang. “A shaky voice every now and then sends a powerful message about how much you care,” Mitchell told Yang. “You’re going to get it right. I know you are.”

Despite the many problems, officials said they had received some encouraging news: On Wednesday night, federal officials granted a 3-month extension for 124,000 people with subsidized health insurance who were set to lose their coverage on March 31 because it didn’t comply with the federal law. The state had requested a six-month extension, but Iselin said the three months will give the state extra time to enroll those people in plans of their choosing.

Michael Levenson can be reached at michael.levenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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