Nearly 50,000 people have purchased 2015 health insurance through the Massachusetts Health Connector, a number that exceeds state officials’ expectations even amid lengthy call center waits and a sometimes frustrating payment system.
Although enrollments continue for six more weeks, the Connector passed a major milestone Sunday, the deadline for coverage effective Jan. 1.
The 49,901 consumers who paid by midnight Sunday surpass original state projections that 30,000 to 35,000 would enroll by that first deadline, said Maydad Cohen, the top official overseeing the Connector website’s reconstruction.
Although the Connector serves only a minority of Massachusetts residents, the agency’s actions bear significance statewide: It is the taxpayer-financed cornerstone of the 2006 law that raised the health insurance rate to 97 percent of the state population and became the model for the federal Affordable Care Act.
The enrollment data so far lend credence to officials’ assertions that the website — rebuilt over the past year after its notorious failure in 2013 — is performing its chief functions: enabling people who do not have coverage through an employer to compare, select, and enroll in health insurance plans and obtain federal and state subsidies to lower their premiums.
“It’s a great time to pause and appreciate how far we’ve come since last year,” Cohen said.
Cohen noted that since open enrollment started Nov. 15, more than 275,000 people had used the website to determine their eligibility for assistance, the key function that last year’s system could not perform. Of them, 131,342 enrolled in MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program.
But enrollment has not been problem-free. Some consumers expressed frustration with an arduous process for proving identities, long waits for service at the call center as deadlines neared, and a difficult online payment system that cannot even confirm when payment has been received.
The payment system is separate from the Connector website and run by Dell, a subcontractor that handles billing.
On Sunday, Dell shut down the payment portal from 1 a.m. to 1 p.m., despite the looming deadline, which annoyed customers and Connector officials. An update that had been scheduled to end at 8 a.m. ran into problems, delaying the restart. Dell has agreed to provide a $50,000 service credit to the Connector because of the incident, Cohen said. A Dell representative could not be reached for comment Monday.
“It’s become clear that the online payment system needs to work better, for me and for consumers,” Cohen said during a telephone press briefing Monday. Sunday’s “outage on the payment system was frustrating and unacceptable.”
Cohen noted, however, that before this year, everyone had to pay by check. And even this year, the majority of payments continue to be made by check.
Lora M. Pellegrini, president of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, said she has heard from “a lot of consumers who are having trouble paying.” She noted that younger people are often at a loss when online payment does not work because they do not have checkbooks.
Still, Pellegrini said, “we’re feeling much more optimistic, but there is much more work to be done.”
Sharon Torgerson, spokeswoman for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, said Connector enrollments are proceeding well. “We are getting daily enrollment files from Dell and issuing ID cards soon after,” she said in an e-mail Monday.
The 50,000 people who enrolled by Sunday amount to two-thirds of those who selected health plans. It is not known how many of the remaining can wait until Feb. 1 for their coverage to renew, how many neglected to pay in time, and how many tried to pay but snagged in the payment system.
(Because of incorrect information provided by the Connector, a story in Monday’s Globe said the enrollment by Sunday’s deadline was greater than 50,000.)
Payment checks, along with some 1,500 electronic fund transfers, poured in over the weekend, with 4,655 payments logged Saturday and Sunday alone. A few more checks may arrive in the next couple of days; they will be accepted for Jan. 1 coverage if postmarked by Dec. 28.
But consumers who paid within the past week will not receive their insurance cards by Thursday, Cohen cautioned. “People should not panic,” he said. Those who have paid will be covered effective Thursday whether or not they have a card; if they have a doctor’s appointment coming up, they should call the insurer for an account number.
Connector officials estimate that 175,000 to 225,000 people who had been in temporary programs because of the website failure last year need to reapply for 2015 health coverage. With more than 180,000 already enrolled in MassHealth and private Connector insurance, “we are really well on our way to meeting those targets,” Cohen said.
Open enrollment continues until Feb. 15, and people in temporary coverage have staggered deadlines of Jan. 15, Jan. 31, and Feb. 15.
Cohen predicted that enrollments will be even more brisk in January than they were this month.
There is one group that might be a cause for concern. About 30,000 people last year enrolled in unsubsidized private health insurance through the Connector. That coverage expires Dec. 31, but only half of those people enrolled in new plans for 2015. It is unclear whether they found coverage through an employer or spouse — or have fallen off the insurance rolls.
“It’s definitely a data point I would want to track,” Cohen said. “It’s a little too early to know whether it’s a reason for concern.”