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    Mass. extends deadline to enroll in health coverage

    Massachusetts extended the deadline to enroll in health coverage on Thursday, giving two additional weeks to residents who have been stymied by the state’s faulty health insurance website.

    The extension from March 31 to April 15 applies to those who do not qualify for subsidized coverage and who assert that they experienced problems with the website, which has been hobbled by error messages since it was revamped in October to comply with the more complex requirements of the federal health care law.

    Those who qualify for subsidized coverage will not face any deadline to enroll, officials said.


    The extension follows a similar one granted earlier this week by the Obama administration for people who have been frustrated by the federal health exchange.

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    Both delays are recognitions of the technical problems that have bedeviled the launch of the federal Affordable Care Act, policy specialists said.

    “I would suspect this isn’t the last one we see,” said Joshua Archambault, director of health care policy at the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank. “It seems only fair, given the failure of the Connector website, that they would grant something along these lines.”

    Still, he said, it could lead to higher premiums because of the uncertainty it adds to the insurance market.

    Eric Linzer, senior vice president at the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, cautioned that it was too soon to know if the delay would affect premiums.


    “It’s uncertain until [insurers] see who is enrolled in their plans to determine what impact that will have,” he said. “However, there are other costs associatedwith the ACA that will add to premiums.”

    Consumer groups had been asking for the delay to help residents who have struggled with the website, said Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, executive director of Health Care for All, an advocacy group that supports universal health coverage.

    “We’ve been working with them to try to find some solution,” she said. “Giving a two-week breathing room will make a big difference.”

    Michael E. Chernew, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, agreed.

    “It strikes me as a reasonable thing,” he said, given the problems with the website.


    At a board meeting of the Massachusetts Health Connector Thursday, officials also announced some good news: A backlog of 72,000 paper applications for health insurance coverage, many submitted by low-income residents, has been completely eliminated.

    The backlog had piled up after officials encouraged residents to file paper applications because of the website problems. The applications were expected to take months to process but were done in about six weeks after officials developed a data-entry system that cut the time it took to enter each application into a database from two hours to 27 minutes.

    Those residents have now been given temporary health insurance coverage through the state Medicaid program.

    Sarah Iselin, a health insurance executive whom Governor Deval Patrick has put in charge of fixing the website, called the end of the backlog a “really, really exciting moment.”

    Meanwhile, she acknowledged that officials are still struggling with the larger problem of how to fix the website in time for the next open enrollment period in November.

    She said officials are weighing whether to rebuild the existing system or borrow parts from states like Kentucky that have functioning health insurance exchanges.

    Earlier this month, Massachusetts dumped CGI, the contractor that designed the new Massachusetts website and built the federal website that got off to a disastrous start last fall but has since been largely fixed.

    Iselin said officials are wrangling with CGI over access to the computer codes for the website and over how much the state owes the firm.

    CGI claimed in a March 14 letter to Iselin that it has not received payment since summer 2013, even as it has continued to work on the website.

    “We’re in the midst of a negotiation,” Iselin said. “The code is clearly owned by the Commonwealth. But clearly there are a lot of aspects to this negotiation, including the question of what, if anything, in addition to what we’ve already paid CGI, we will pay them as part of the transition, and it’s just too soon to say.”

    In its letter, CGI also blamed the state for problems with the website, accusing officials of poor governance, lack of timely decision-making, and of constantly changing the scope of the work.

    Iselin declined to comment on those accusations, saying, “I can’t speak to anything that happened before the time that I arrived” in February.

    But she said, “We have a solid governance structure and management structure to ensure we get to a fully functioning website that supports our health insurance exchange.”

    The state is facing a deadline of June 30 tomove the 125,000 residents enrolled in temporary Medicaid coverage to plans that comply with the federal health care law. But because the website is not expected to be fully functioning by that date, officials have previously said they plan to ask the Obama administration to extend that deadline to Sept. 30.

    Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.