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Murray criticizes health care site

‘The governor explained . . . even though people are told they don’t have coverage, they really do have coverage. I don’t know about that,’ Senate President Therese Murray said.

Debee Tlumacki for the Boston Globe

‘The governor explained . . . even though people are told they don’t have coverage, they really do have coverage. I don’t know about that,’ Senate President Therese Murray said.

Senate President Therese Murray said Monday that, despite the assurances of Governor Deval Patrick, many Massachusetts residents are still unable to use the state website designed to help them enroll in health insurance.

In a wide-ranging interview that touched on the problems plaguing the state Department of Children and Families, Murray said her office had been inundated with calls from constituents who have been frustrated by the troubled Health Connector website.

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“Honestly, it’s a little frustrating,” Murray said. “Those constituent calls we’re getting, we are still getting these calls. And the governor explained to us that even though people are told they don’t have coverage, they really do have coverage. I don’t know about that.”

For example, Murray said, a woman who needed a heart transplant called her office Friday after she was kicked off the state Medicaid program because her income was $14 above the monthly legal limit.

“And she has no health insurance,” Murray said. “It’s very, very frustrating to see this woman struggling, and she’s not the only one.”

The Senate president said that with the problems afflicting both the Health Connector website and the state’s unemployment insurance system, “we’ve just been swamped” with constituent complaints.

Murray, a Plymouth Democrat, said the troubled Health Connector website threatens to undermine public confidence in the federal health care law.

“It’s certainly got enough people talking negatively about it that weren’t talking negatively about it before,” she said. “I think the uncertainty of what’s happening in that marketplace for businesses is concerning for them, too.”

The Connector’s online marketplace, the model for the insurance exchanges in the national Affordable Care Act, worked smoothly until the fall.

But the new website, launched in October to comply with the federal law, has frustrated customers and required the state to move tens of thousands of people into temporary coverage because their applications could not be processed.

Patrick announced last week that Sarah Iselin, a top executive at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, will be charged with coordinating efforts among several state agencies and website developer CGI to get the site working again.

“The governor last week acknowledged that, indeed, we are not where we want to be with regard to the functionality of the Connector website,” Iselin said in an interview Monday. “However, we have put tools in place to ensure that folks who have coverage don’t lose it and folks who want it, can.”

Iselin said, for example, that people who cannot use the website can call the Connector’s hotline to get help finding coverage.

A member of the board that oversees the Connector’s website in part blamed himself and his colleagues for the problems, which have frustrated consumers, left some uninsured, and others without permanent coverage.

CGI, the firm that built the site, is largely responsible for the breakdown, but the board has been “disinterested” and “too laissez-faire on nonpolicy issues,’’ Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economics professor, wrote to his fellow board members last month.

“I am almost certainly the worst offender here, as I am more likely to be checking e-mail on my iPhone when non-policy stuff is being discussed,’’ Gruber said.

He went on to say that “too little is being done in public at the board meetings,” which have become “perfunctory.”

“This has been great for projecting a harmonious image for the board, but it has, I think, contributed to our falling down on our jobs,” he wrote. “I think we need to stop being afraid to surface hard issues and disagreements in public at board meetings.’’

The Jan. 25 memo was provided to the Globe by the Connector Monday. Spokesman Jason Lefferts would not comment on the document, which the Boston Herald first reported Monday. Gruber and several other board members did not return phone calls from the Globe.

Gruber proposed in the memo that the board meet every two weeks, rather than monthly, until the problems are resolved. He also requested more presentations from Connector staff and outside consultants on how they are fixing glitches. “The situation as it stands Monday is untenable,’’ he said. “We need to play a more central role.”

The Connector has scheduled three meetings in February and two in March. “We want to keep the board up to date during a busy period,” Lefferts said.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker, a former health insurance executive, called Gruber’s memo “disturbing.”

It points out that “people on the Connector board weren’t really paying much attention to issues of executing, moving from a system that was working here in Massachusetts to one fraught with complexity and risk,” Baker said.

Gruber’s comments confirmed a consultant’s report finding that “there were too many cooks in the kitchen and no one really in charge” of the website’s relaunch to comply with the federal Accountable Care Act, Baker said.

Murray, turning to the Department of Children and Families, floated the idea of launching “forensic teams” that would perform spot checks at DCF offices and foster homes, to make sure they are operating properly. She said the idea was modeled on similar teams from the state Department of Public Health that perform regular checks on private nursing homes, to make sure they are up to code.

“I honestly believe that that’s going to be needed in the future for this,” Murray said. “A fresh pair of eyes sometimes is helpful, especially if you get emotionally involved with these families and the abuse they’re going through.”

Patrick has launched an outside review of the families agency by the Child Welfare League of America and has proposed a $32.6 million budget increase for it. Murray said the Senate is likely to go along with that budget proposal when it releases its spending plan in the coming months.

Murray, who has served in the Legislature since 1993, announced over the weekend that she will not seek reelection this fall and will leave Beacon Hill when her term expires in January 2015.

The decision was not a surprise, since she is term-limited as Senate president and has agreed to hand over the reins of power to Senator Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat who has claimed sufficient votes to succeed her.

At least one person, Representative Vinny deMacedo, a Plymouth Republican, has announced that he will run for Murray’s seat this fall. Murray said a Republican may have a shot at winning the seat

“It’s a conservative district,” Murray said. “It’s a red district. I’m the only Democrat elected there.”

Of her future, Murray said, “I’m keeping all my doors open.”

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