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Massachusetts' big Obamacare bounce-back

In just two full days of operation, Massachusetts' health-care marketplace already has signed up more than 10 percent of the total number of customers that it did during the entire open-enrollment season last year, officials revealed Monday.

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The state's health exchange said 3,600 individuals and families already have selected their plans, and 137 have paid their first bill, five weeks in advance of the Dec. 23 deadline.

In contrast, just 31,695 people selected plans on the Massachusetts Health Connector during the previous six-monthlong open-enrollment season, which ended in mid-April.

For enrollment to become effective, people who select a plan must pay their first month's premium.

"We are very happy that so many of our members went on the website this weekend and now have health coverage for 2015," said Jean Yang, executive director of the Massachusetts Health Connector.

Another 6,792 individuals and families were found to be eligible for exchange-sold plans. The exchange also said that since Saturday, 4,989 visitors were immediately enrolled in the state's Medicaid program, MassHealth.

Last year's enrollment season was considered a disaster for the state. Its technologically crippled marketplace was unable to enroll a significant number of applicants online, or even determine whether they were eligible for the tax credits that reduce many customers' premiums.

The state earlier this year scrapped that technology platform, built by vendor CGI, and replaced it with one from a company called hCentive. It credited this change for the dramatic turnaround in performance.

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"The website was stable, reliable and it did exactly what we built it to do: serve as a tool to connect Massachusetts residents to the health and economic benefits of [Affordable Care Act] coverage," said Maydad Cohen, special assistant for project delivery to Gov. Deval Patrick.

"Now it's up to us to build on the strong performance of the first two days, make sure every consumer using the site or calling the call centers enjoys the smoothest experience possible, and finish critical IT upgrades scheduled for December," Cohen said.

A notice on the exchange's website on Monday alerted users that "the Health Connector and MassHealth call centers are experiencing a high number of callers right now," and encouraged them to start their applications online.

Massachusetts Health Connector screen image
Source: Massachusetts Health Connector
Massachusetts Health Connector screen image

Josh Archambault, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability, said, "The bar for 'success' during open enrollment in Massachusetts has been set very low given how poorly the first website performed."

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"While early reports have been promising that we are not seeing a re-run of last year, the site is still showing many people error messages when they try to use it," he said. "In addition, the website still cannot handle basic life changes, and shoppers are not able to find out if their current doctor is included in a plan they might be shopping for."

"For over a quarter of a million dollars for the website, and over $1 billion for the ACA transition in the Commonwealth, I think most taxpayers will still be disappointed in their return on investment when open enrollment ends," Archambault said.

"Some of the back-end of the site is still being built in the Bay State, and other software elements are still being tested, even during open enrollment. Time will tell if the website is truly functional, or merely an expensive façade on top of some manual workarounds."

The federal marketplace, HealthCare.gov, also started its open enrollment period over the weekend. More than 100,000 people filled out applications on the first day, though Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said she was not sure how many were able to complete the enrollment process.

A year ago, the site experienced so many technical difficulties that only six people were able to complete the process on opening day.