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Franklin County residents having trouble with Massachusetts health insurance website

Emma Ram and Mark Lamore of Community Action go door to door at Greenfield Gardens Apartments on Saturday to inform people about the options with the new Affordable Care Act. “Our goal is to get out as much information as we can and hand out phone numbers and websites for people to call,” said Lamore. 
Recorder/Beth Reynolds

Emma Ram and Mark Lamore of Community Action go door to door at Greenfield Gardens Apartments on Saturday to inform people about the options with the new Affordable Care Act. “Our goal is to get out as much information as we can and hand out phone numbers and websites for people to call,” said Lamore. Recorder/Beth Reynolds

Local residents who need or want to sign up for new health insurance under the Affordable Care Act are also running into some technical troubles on the website for the state’s online marketplace. Nevertheless, officials say Massachusetts, a state with a 97 percent health insurance rate, is doing far better than others across the country during the “Obamacare” open enrollment period that began in October.

The federal law meant relatively small changes for a state that went through its big enrollment period after its own mandatory health insurance law passed in 2006.

But nearly 3,000 Franklin County residents are currently enrolled in a subsidized insurance program that’s being phased out under the federal law, said Jason Lefferts, spokesman for the Massachusetts Health Connector. Some of those people are being automatically transferred into another state insurance program, while others need to log on to MAHealthConnector.org to sign up for a new plan, said Lefferts.

About 150,000 people statewide need to switch from the subsidized insurance program Commonwealth Care into a new plan, said Lefferts. An additional 40,000 people (who have an income between three and four times the poverty level) now qualify for discounted insurance.

But as of last week, only 850 people in Massachusetts had selected a plan, said Lefferts. Nearly 57,000 applications had been started and just over 19,000 had been completed, he said.

Certified health officials who can help local people enroll for coverage say that the website is preventing that from easily happening. They were relieved to learn that the state had extended a key enrollment deadline from the end of December to the end of March.

“The site freezes quite a bit and still has a lot of glitches,” said Aria Sampson, a patient financial services representative at Baystate Franklin Medical Center. “It is very slow, and sometimes does not even let you get through the application.”

Once people do finish an application, they then have to wait weeks to hear if they qualify and what kind of a discount they will receive on coverage. Lefferts said that within the next few weeks, the website will include a more automated system that will process applications immediately and let them shop for plans.

He attributes the glitches to the high volumes of people who are all trying to navigate the site at the same time. Residents have reported problems like the site not recognizing a hyphenated last name or continuously reporting one man, who has never been to jail, as incarcerated.

“We anticipated there would be bugs in the system. There have been,” said Lefferts, who added that fixes are typically quickly implemented.

These problems have frustrated not only residents trying to enroll, but also the health care workers assisting them through the process.

Application counselors at the hospital and the Community Health Center of Franklin County, who say they’re trying to fit in as many appointments with people as they can, have started to turn to paper applications when the website freezes.

Help from the Health Connector’s customer service telephone line hasn’t been much help for people, said Sampson.

Ties to the federal health insurance law

There is no direct connection between MAHealthConnector.org and HealthCare.gov — the federal health insurance website used by residents in 36 states, including Maine and New Hampshire, that has been plagued by technical problems.

However, those two sites, and other state-run marketplace websites, are all tapping into federal databases at the same time. When a person enters his or her income, for example, the website will check an Internal Revenue Service database to verify that information.

Health officials suspect that this is causing delays. Lefferts said it has not been a source of the website’s problems.

Officials say there’s also an indirect connection. As people hear about complaints surrounding the federal law and health insurance website, they may not be aware that Massachusetts has its own website.

“The attention that the media is giving the whole Affordable Care Act on the national level is creating a lot of anxiety in people’s minds,” said Cameron Carey, development director for the Community Health Center of Franklin County.

He said that the health center has had to reassure people that they still have time — especially with the extension of the Commonwealth Care deadline from December to March — to complete their applications.

Anti-poverty organization Community Action began a canvassing effort last week, as another way to reach out to people and convey information about the Affordable Care Act. The organization hopes to knock on 4,000 doors in Franklin County by the end of March.

“We’re not there to force anybody into anything. We’re going to be there to help give them helpful information if they want to,” said Kristin Peterson, associate director at Community Action. “The intent of this ... (is) to give people information so they get into the right pipeline.”

Advocacy group Health Care for All selected Community Action and other organizations to help with the statewide canvassing campaign.

Executive Director Amy Whitcomb Slemmer said that the organization targeted Franklin County as one of the areas in Massachusetts that could benefit from a door-to-door effort. People who live in more densely populated areas of the state have more organizations they can turn to for help enrolling, she said.

Once people are told precisely what steps they need to take with enrollment, she believes the process should go smoothly.

“It’s not as complicated as it seems to be portrayed publicly,” said Whitcomb Slemmer. “We appreciate people continuing to share their own concerns and also ... (for) hanging in with us.”

Outreach efforts

The Community Health Center of Franklin County has received federal grants to help people fill out applications and try to educate and connect unenrolled people with coverage. According to health center officials, about 8 percent of the county’s residents (nearly 6,000 people) are uninsured.

Both the health center and Baystate Franklin Medical Center have employees who can help people with applications. And soon Community Action will be certified to help people with their applications.

Blue Cross Blue Shield recently awarded Community Action a one-year $40,000 grant to help connect people with health insurance — through application assistance, outreach events and increased collaboration with the hospital and Community Health Center.

Danna Boughton, coordinator for Community Action’s community resources and advocacy program, said the agency was involved in similar programs after Massachusetts passed its own health insurance law in 2006.

She remains optimistic that the people will be able to enroll.

“Through that experience (after the passage of the state law) I will tell you that ... most of the people enrolled in the last two months,” said Boughton. “People wait. It’s human nature.”

You can reach Chris Shores at: cshores@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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