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Snarls in retooled Mass. insurance site

Changes are tied to US health law

Sean Kimball of Windsor had a retort ready when friends expressed their objections to the Affordable Care Act. "It's worked out well for us," he would say. The 2006 Massachusetts health law, later a model for the national one, provided his family with affordable coverage following a layoff.

But lately the state's online insurance marketplace has not been working for Kimball — or for many other consumers. He spent two weeks trying to enroll in a new plan, without success, he said.

Since the state relaunched its insurance website Oct. 1 to comply with the national law, it has had persistent problems: links lead nowhere, technological failures lock users out or deliver inexplicable error messages, and consumers endure long wait times to speak with customer service representatives, who sometimes offer little more than a suggestion to try again later.


The Connector's Facebook page is full of complaints from consumers, many of whom said they support the state and national health care laws ideologically but are incensed by an uncooperative website and by the fact that the old, functional state system is gone.

Leaders of the Massachusetts Health Connector, the independent agency that runs the marketplace, say they are working around the clock to address the problems. They say they have brought in experts to help engineer fixes and plan to double the number of people working the hot line by the end of this week.

"Ultimately, getting people the coverage that they are entitled to is our highest priority," said Jean Yang, executive director of the Connector, who said she understands why people are frustrated.

About 105,000 people who have state subsidized coverage, through a program called Commonwealth Care, must enroll in a new plan in the coming months, and many more people want to shop for insurance. As of Wednesday night, 23,275 people had completed applications, about twice the number at the end of October. Just 1,047 had selected a plan, the last step before paying and becoming fulling enrolled. The website is not yet accepting online payments.


After trying for two weeks, Sean Kimball still is seeking a plan.Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

In the first days of troubleshooting the website, Connector spokespeople said that they were fixing relatively minor glitches and that some of the more significant problems were related to difficulty accessing the troubled federal data hub. But weeks later, many of the most common complaints are about the state website itself.

Yang stopped short of saying that the website was launched before it was ready or that mistakes were made in its design. She called it a "very young system" and one that is far more complicated than the Connector's old site.

"We've been working very hard to improve and stabilize and enhance the system, and that's a process that has been ongoing since the day that we went live," she said.

The $69 million website was built by CGI, which helped develop the much-maligned federal site. The state and CGI recently brought in engineers from Oracle to refine the site, which is largely built on Oracle software.

The Connector also moved the deadline by which the 105,000 people enrolled in Commonwealth Care must select a new plan — to March 31, allowing three more months.

For Kimball, 51, the reprieve was welcome. He tried frequently over two weeks to enroll but the system repeatedly assigned him the wrong home address and wouldn't accept his changes. Or, it incorrectly determined he is incarcerated and therefore ineligible.


That automated message was generated whenever the federal Homeland Security database was down, Yang said, but connector officials said they have changed the process to allow people to proceed with their application when that occurs. They also fixed a problem that caused the system to deny user passwords.

Kimball is worried about securing the insurance coverage his family needs. But, more than that, he is concerned that the state is backsliding.

"I loved being able to say, 'Hey, we've got the whole gay marriage thing, that's cool, and the health care thing works, too,' " he said. "It seems really important to me, and I don't want to lose it."

Mary Lincoln of Jamaica Plain also lamented the loss of the old Connector site, where she bought separate plans for herself and for her 24-year-old son. Her son's plan expires at the end of the year.

He is a full-time student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and probably can get coverage from the school, Lincoln said, but she wanted to compare the price with Connector plans. She submitted an application for him and was told she would receive verification by mail.

That was four weeks ago. Since then, she has called customer service several times.

"I just keep being on hold, and eventually I just have to give up," she said.

Yang said the average wait time as of mid-November was just under 10 minutes, though many people were waiting more than 30 minutes. She said she hopes an increase in representatives taking calls, from 65 to 130, will help.


Health Care for All, a consumer advocacy group, has been hearing complaints that the website is slow to load or finicky. Kate Bicego, the consumer assistance program manager, said she is confident the state is doing what it can to fix it.

"We're asking people to take a deep breath," she said. "No one has lost coverage."

But that is a concern. Some people with nonsubsidized plans through the Connector's Commonwealth Choice program must reenroll in coverage by year's end if their plan expires. And some consumers with canceled commercial plans are looking to shop for coverage through the state market and avoid a gap in coverage.

Richard Ilsley, 60, of Wellesley last week finally succeeded in choosing a plan — one that costs less and has a lower deductible than the one he had, even without a subsidy. It took nearly five weeks of trying. Ilsley said the site clearly wasn't well tested before launch. Asked what advice he had for those trying to apply, Ilsley said, "Good luck to everyone."

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