Metro

Health Connector sign-ups exceed expectations

A reporter reads a summary of the performance and usage over the first two days of open enrollment of the Massachusetts Health Connector website in November.

BRIAN SNYDER/Reuters

A reporter reads a summary of the performance and usage over the first two days of open enrollment of the Massachusetts Health Connector website in November.

Health-insurance sign-ups are running ahead of expectations as the Massachusetts Health Connector wraps up the second month of the three-month open-enrollment period, according to Louis Gutierrez, executive director.

The Connector, a state agency that serves people who don’t obtain health insurance through an employer, has drawn in more than 27,600 new enrollees since open enrollment began Nov 1. And Gutierrez expects to see many more before the sign-up period ends on Jan. 31.

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If all continues smoothly, this could be the first time in three years that Massachusetts has a functioning health insurance exchange, after a long stretch of computer dysfunction and poor customer service.

“The website worked just as we expected. Customer services folks were able to answer questions,” said Vicki Coates, the Connector’s chief operating officer. “Knock on wood, we’re doing well.”

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But Gutierrez cautioned: “We haven’t hung up any ‘Mission Accomplished’ flags yet. There are still things that are going to need repair over the course of the year.” These include better synchronizing the payment and enrollment systems and reducing the number of special circumstances that the system can’t handle, which now require manual workarounds.

And Coates is still working to clear up nearly 1,000 problems with payments or enrollments that originated with last year’s balky system.

Connector enrollment has now reached 189,700 — and the goal was 190,000 by the end of January, Gutierrez said. Most people already buying insurance through the Connector did not need to re-enroll this year but could keep their existing coverage just by continuing to pay premiums.

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At the Connector’s website, people can compare health plans, find out whether they’re eligible for subsidies, and sign up for coverage. In-person help is available at seven walk-in centers and on the phone.

In the previous two enrollment periods, customers had a hard time with many or all of those functions. The state was forced to upgrade the Connector software in 2013 to meet the terms of the federal Affordable Care Act, but the new program crashed and had to be scrapped. A quickly rebuilt system for the enrollment period that started in fall 2014 had major problems processing payments, leaving some people without insurance even though they had paid. The call center was overwhelmed with complaints and unable to solve many of them.

The Connector released statistics suggesting things are going much better in the current enrollment period. Calls to the help center dropped by almost 40 percent, compared with the same period the previous year, and callers waited on hold an average of 14 seconds, compared with 7 minutes during November and December 2014.

Complaints on the Connector’s Facebook page also suggest an easier year. The comments, while still negative, were comparatively sparse. Some writers were upset by increases in premium costs, some had lingering problems with payments from last year, and some said they were buying directly from an insurer rather than bothering with the Connector.

Those who buy from insurers, however, cannot take advantage of state and federal subsidies to lower premiums. The majority of Connector enrollees are eligible for subsidies.

The deadline to obtain coverage effective Jan. 1 was last Wednesday. Customers have until Jan. 23 to buy insurance effective Feb. 1, and until Jan. 31 to buy a plan that starts March 1.

After Jan. 31, people can buy insurance through the Connector if they undergo a life change, such as job loss, a move, a new child, a death in the family, or losing eligibility for MassHealth. During this “closed enrollment” period in 2015, some 60,000 people signed up through the Connector, Gutierrez said, calling it a surprisingly large number.

Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer.
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