- Associated Press - Monday, March 31, 2014

BALTIMORE (AP) - Maryland residents without health insurance worked against a midnight deadline and a troubled website to enroll in health plans Monday.

In Baltimore, Said Ali drove from Virginia to help his friend Sakina Alavi, who doesn’t speak English, get enrolled in a plan. He said they had an appointment at a downtown Baltimore office where other people were steadily arriving to get help to sign up at the last minute. Ali said it took about 20 minutes to get Alavi signed up.

“It was pretty easy,” Ali said, adding that he was happy with the plan his friend was able to get.

Maryland’s online health exchange crashed as soon as it opened Oct. 1. Although the state has made progress improving the website, serious information technology problems remain after six months of work. Many people have sought help in person from navigators who know how to get around the bugs.

Maryland, one of 14 states to create its own health exchange, has put a hotline in place for people who have tried to enroll but couldn’t. Everyone who calls by the deadline is supposed to get a call and assistance for coverage that begins May 1. The hotline is 1-800-396-1961.

Meanwhile, critics of the state’s flawed health reform rollout were outspoken about the state’s problems, as the board that oversees the exchange was set to meet Tuesday to discuss what to do next for the open enrollment period beginning in November.

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration has declined to discuss details about what the next step will be until the current enrollment period ends. On Friday, the governor told reporters the exchange is “not working at a level that I would call acceptable for when November comes around.”

Maryland officials have been discussing the possibility of transitioning to Connecticut’s online exchange technology. Other options under consideration have been to move to the federal health exchange or make upgrades to Maryland’s.

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland’s lone Republican congressman who has been opposed to President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, said the state has no choice but to move to a new exchange. Harris has called for an investigation into how money was spent on the flawed exchange, and the inspector general at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has agreed to conduct a review.

“Two years and $200 million later, Maryland is back to square one - and will now have to spend tens of millions more to implement Connecticut’s exchange,” Harris said in a statement Monday.

The criticism has been bipartisan.

U.S. Rep. John Delaney, a Democrat, has been calling on the state to abandon the Maryland health exchange for months.

“The overall impact of the failure of the Maryland Health Connection over the last year is unavoidable: Tens of thousands of Marylanders that should have coverage remain uninsured and millions of dollars in taxpayer dollars have been wasted,” Delaney said.

The problems have drawn criticism in a big Maryland election year. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who took the lead in implementing health care reform in Maryland, is running to succeed O’Malley, who is term limited and weighing a run for the White House in 2016. Brown’s opponents have been highlighting the website’s problems to criticize Brown’s leadership.

“This is the one thing he said he was leading on, and it’s been a debacle,” Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, who is running against Brown in the Democratic primary, said Monday.

Brown’s campaign counters that Gansler was a member of a health care reform council that oversaw the development of the exchange but attended only one of 17 meetings.

“Doug Gansler has done nothing to help everyday Marylanders sign up for health care,” said Justin Schall, Brown’s campaign manager.

The Maryland health exchange reported Friday that 49,293 people have enrolled in private health plans through March 22. The state initially hoped to have 150,000 enrolled in private plans. The O’Malley administration has tried to offset the poor showing of the exchange by highlighting that 220,043 additional Maryland residents have enrolled in Medicaid as a result of the Affordable Care Act.

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