Metro

1 in 10 hit snag on Mass. Health Connector site

Officials say system works as expected

About 5,000 people applying for health insurance have been temporarily locked out of the Massachusetts Health Connector’s website because of difficulties proving their identities online — an issue that Connector officials call inevitable and similar to experiences in other states.

Software glitches are not to blame, said Maydad Cohen, the state official overseeing the website’s reconstruction. Instead, requests for more documentation to verify identities are evidence of a necessarily rigorous process, he said.

“The system is operating exactly as it was built to,” Cohen said, by trying to ascertain “that you are who you say you are when you’re applying.”

Advertisement

But those caught in this snag — about 10 percent of people who attempted to log into the health insurance site — find it maddening.

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“It makes you go crazy. This has been very tough,” said Lesley Hausmann of Lexington, who had to mail in a copy of her husband’s driver’s license.

“It’s infuriating,” said Richard Pask of North Truro, who mailed copies of his and his wife’s passports last week and is still waiting to hear back. “It’s like a Kafka novel.”

Despite a smattering of such complaints, Cohen said the Connector had kept its promise to provide a well-performing website to Massachusetts residents who do not get health insurance from an employer.

In the Connector website’s first seven days, 51,967 signed on and learned what kind of health coverage they are eligible for — the key function that software was unable to perform last year, after it was retooled to comply with the federal Affordable Care Act. That number represents roughly a quarter of the 175,000 to 225,000 people expected to use the Connector during the three-month open enrollment period.

Advertisement

“To reach that milestone in seven days gives us really good hope,” Cohen said. He said the website continues to operate without lags; the average wait time at the call centers during the first seven days was just over four minutes.

Of those who determined their eligibility, 23,792 qualified for Medicaid and were immediately enrolled. The rest were found eligible for private insurance, and half of those people selected a plan. A total of 753 have already paid their first month’s premium, which is due Dec. 23.

While thousands made it through the process, 4,998 people came to a dead stop when they could not verify their identities online. Connector officials said this rate of roughly 10 percent is similar to that of the federal marketplace. Spokeswomen for the health insurance exchanges in Connecticut and Rhode Island, both among the nation’s best-functioning, reported similar estimates for identity-verification problems: 10 percent in Connecticut, 10 to 15 percent in Rhode Island.

To continue with their application, people need to provide backup documentation, such as copies of a driver’s license or passport, by mail or fax. As of Monday morning, 899 people had sent in documents and 739 accounts had been unlocked, according to Connector spokesman Jason Lefferts.

The Connector is using Experian, a credit-rating service, to check identities against information the service has in its database. Young people and new immigrants who do not have long credit histories, people who have been victims of identity theft or have had their credit history frozen, and those who have recently moved can run into this problem. But any number of quirks can cause it.

Advertisement

Hausmann, a 47-year-old self-employed management consultant, has no idea why the system could not verify her husband’s identity. They bought health insurance on the Connector last year.

Hausmann called it “really aggravating” to read news stories about the website’s success. “It’s not going great for everyone,” she said. “It’s nice that the technology is running better, but that doesn’t mean they have everything running well.”

Pask, 62, who is retired, feels the same way. “It’s like pouring salt in the wound when you read the paper or turn on the television and they tell you how swell everything is going,” he said.

Last year, Pask spent months trying to get coverage. He was hoping for a better experience this year, but it is not going well. He said he waited 40 minutes for service at the call center early last week. He got a mysterious error message that he believes may have been related to his abbreviating “N. Truro” instead of spelling out “North.” Then he hit the identity snag. He said he mailed out copies of his and his wife’s passports Wednesday and still hasn’t heard back.

Connector officials point to Paul Munafo’s experience as more typical.

Munafo, a 62-year-old carpenter and builder who had a liver transplant last August, is not yet able to return to work, and relies on the income of his wife, MJ Bruder Munafo, the artistic director of a theater on the Vineyard. Last year, they were never able to apply for a subsidy because of the website’s failure, and ended up buying insurance for $1,250 a month for the pair.

This year, the Munafos went to Vineyard Health Care Access, an advocacy group, where a “navigator,” trained to help people enroll, entered the couple’s information and showed them their options. In a little over an hour, they had selected a plan that, because of a $500 subsidy, cost $780 a month.

“It’s a godsend,” Paul Munafo said. “I’m so grateful.”

Eric Linzer, spokesman for the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, said health insurers are starting to receive enrollment files from the Connector. It is too soon to tell, he said, whether the next crucial steps — getting people enrolled so they can get their insurance cards — will go smoothly.

Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com.