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Md. Health Secretary: Deal Made With Exchange Providers

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Joshua Sharfstein

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) —  Maryland’s health secretary said Monday night that an agreement has been reached to retroactively provide health insurance to people who had computer problems when trying to enroll in the state’s troubled online insurance exchange.

The agreement with the exchange’s four participating carriers will enable people who could not enroll due to computer glitches to get coverage retroactive to Jan. 1, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

He says Gov. Martin O’Malley plans to announce the agreement Tuesday, when lawmakers will consider emergency legislation to help enroll people in a health plan unrelated to the exchange, also a result of the website troubles. He says  state officials have been working with health carriers for weeks on the agreement, which was reached Monday.

Sharfstein says there will be some operational challenges under the new agreement, but that the state is planning an outreach effort to several thousand people.

“There will be some operational challenges, but we hope to enroll as many as we can,” Sharfstein told the AP late Monday.

The deal comes as the troubled exchange has been a point of contention in the state’s governor’s race. On Monday, Attorney General Doug Gansler cited ongoing problems with the website as a means of criticizing the leadership skills of his chief rival for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

Gansler went on the offensive at his campaign headquarters in the latest foray in a vigorously contested Democratic primary.

Brown has been on the defensive from the lingering health exchange website problems because he took on a highly publicized role as the state’s main leader on its implementation. Gansler criticized Brown for not being more upfront about problems with contractors and computer glitches.

“This is what leadership is all about,” Gansler said. “You lead. You get involved. You roll up your sleeves, and you get a little dirty and you talk with contractors. Find out if it’s not working, why it’s not working.”

Brown campaign manager Justin Schall said in a statement: “Instead of working with the Legislature and the Governor’s office to offer practical solutions, (Gansler) is simply trying to score cheap political points to further his own political ambition.”

Brown is scheduled to testify Tuesday before two legislative panels that are considering the emergency measures to enroll people who could not get health care plans through the website, which had trouble almost as soon as it opened on Oct. 1.

Gansler said Brown should explain why problems have been so extensive with the $170 million initiative.

“This isn’t $170. This is $170 million of taxpayer money to put up a website,” Gansler said.

Asked about whether he thought he had any responsibility with the website problems due to his position on the Maryland Health Care Coordinating Council, Gansler replied: “None.”  He said meetings of the council were about policy, not potential technology problems.

“We’re the lawyers with the different agencies, and we were not involved in the website rollout,” Gansler said.

Brown and O’Malley have repeatedly said the website’s performance in its first months was disappointing, but they have said it has steadily improved. O’Malley has continued to express confidence that Maryland will reach a goal of 260,000 signups by March 31.

The exchange says 20,358 have enrolled in qualified private health plans as of Jan 4. The state says many more have enrolled through Medicaid under the federal health care overhaul. The state says as many as 162,000 people are on track for coverage so far.

But considerable work on problems continues. On Friday, the state announced that 70 more people have been hired to work in a call center to help people enroll in private health plans through the website.

The emergency legislation lawmakers will consider Tuesday would insure up to 5,000 people through the Maryland Health Insurance Program. It’s a separate safety net plan that has served as a high-risk pool for state residents without insurance.

State officials have estimated it will cost between $5 million and $10 million to provide the coverage retroactive to Jan. 1, depending on how many enroll.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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