- Associated Press - Monday, May 5, 2014

BOSTON (AP) - Massachusetts officials unveiled a strategy on Monday for overhauling the hobbled health insurance website that has dramatically slowed the state’s transition from a first-in-the-nation universal health care program to the requirements of the federal Affordable Care Act.

The state planned a “dual-track” approach that calls for purchasing software powering health exchanges in other states while at the same time laying the groundwork for a temporary switchover to the federal government’s health care exchange, should that become necessary.

According to an Obama administration report released last week, less than 32,000 Massachusetts residents were able to enroll in coverage that meets the requirements of the federal law - far short of the goal of 250,000.

Sarah Iselin, a special assistant hired by Gov. Deval Patrick to oversee fixing the website, said the strategy was to create a functional Massachusetts exchange by the start of the next open enrollment period on Nov. 15 and a fully integrated system by next year.

The website glitches have forced the state’s health connector to rely on balky manual workarounds and place some 160,000 residents into temporary Medicaid coverage, while also seeking six months worth of waivers from the federal government.

The state’s plan, which Iselin called “well informed and pragmatic,” would be detailed at a meeting of the connector board on Thursday.

“I’ve said all along that no option on the table would be perfect, and the dual track certainly has its benefits and its challenges,” Iselin said in a statement.

Under the plan, the state will purchase software from hCentive, a Virginia-based firm that helped set up smoother-operating exchanges in states including Colorado and Kentucky.

Simultaneously, Massachusetts will begin a process of connecting to the federal healthcare.gov site that officials said could serve as a temporary replacement if the hCentive application takes longer than expected to implement.

Oregon last month became the first state to officially give up on its problem-plagued state portal and announce a switch to the federal website. But Massachusetts officials are more reluctant to take that route largely because of the complexities embedded in the state’s 2006 health care law signed by then-Gov. Mitt Romney.

No price tag was attached to the plan announced Monday but officials said they did not expect the fix to cost more than what was originally forecast for creating the exchange, with most of the money coming from the federal government.

Joshua Archambault, a health care analyst for the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute, faulted officials for not providing a specific cost estimate.

“We are getting ripped off if they don’t have all the details out before they move forward,” said Archambault, who also questioned the state’s ability to achieve a functional website by November, given past failures.

The plan also calls for an enhanced system integration role for Optum, a health care technology firm that has been advising the state for several months.

The state announced in March that it was cutting ties with CGI Group, the company that was also the lead contractor for the federal website that ran into early difficulties. The state has previously said that it paid CGI $17.3 million out of an original $69 million contract.

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