As of October 17th, around 2,400 people had signed up for health insurance within the state of Maryland. Those numbers pale in comparison with states like Kentucky, which had enrolled almost 11,000 by October 8th.
Many are saying that Maryland’s remote identity verification system is to blame.
Healthcare reform reporter Jack Lambert has been covering the story for the Annapolis Capital Gazette, and joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. President Obama and embattled Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius are meeting with insurance executives later today to talk about the federal government's health care exchanges and the shaky start.
HOBSON: And we want to continue to take a closer look at how state health care exchanges are faring since the October 1st launch. Yesterday we spoke to Kentucky's governor. Things are running smoothly there. But in Maryland, it's a different story. As of October 17th, just 2,400 people had bought insurance through the health care exchange.
Jack Lambert is healthcare reporter for the Annapolis Capital Gazette. He's with us now. And Jack, what's the holdup in Maryland?
JACK LAMBERT: Well, the biggest thing that's happening, at least in the first couple days, was the demand, at least state officials are citing, was too much to handle for the website. I think they said they tested the website for about 5,000 people to push the same button at the same time. The first two days, it was pretty much chaos out here in Maryland.
Since then things have been better. One of the problems also we're seeing is that the online verification process for people to enter their Social Security number, driver's license and get that verified online, that's taking up a lot of time and really delaying the process for some people.
HOBSON: And there are state officials saying that that may help prevent fraud, right?
LAMBERT: Yes, and I think that's one of the things Maryland, is that Rebecca Pierce(ph), who is the executive director for the Health Benefit Exchange, what she said is that if you look at other states like Kentucky or Washington, where you seeing much higher enrollment numbers, she was saying that some of those states, you know, you don't have that quite stringent standards.
And when you get to the end of the application process here in Maryland, they ask you to enter something online, either your Social Security card, pay stub, birth certificate, anything in the line that can verify you actually are a Maryland resident, they check that with a federal identification base and then kind of process your application.
And so beyond just the standards of getting through the website, you're seeing that process take a long time and kind of frustrate people.
HOBSON: And when we talk about that number, 2,400 people buying insurance as of October 17 through the state health care exchange, how many uninsured are there in Maryland that are going to need to sign up?
LAMBERT: Well, if you look at the population, it's about 14 percent of total state residents, so slightly over 800,000 uninsured people in Maryland. At the beginning of this whole process, I think the state officials set a goal for this year to enroll about 150,000 people by the March 31st deadline.
And so it's definitely off to a slow state. Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown here, who's really been kind of out in front on this health care issue in Maryland, even acknowledged the slow start at the hearing last week. But they're confident now. They said the numbers are trending up. They doubled their total in the last week here from slightly under 1,200 to 2,400.
So they're more confident, although the numbers are still not very good comparatively.
HOBSON: Jack, we spoke to David Beaver(ph), he's a human resource officer for a small business in Baltimore, which is thinking of switching to the exchange because the old company plan doesn't meet the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. But David Beaver said it took him four hours just to fill out his basic information, and he couldn't even see the plans that were offered. Let's listen.
DAVID BEAVER: It's very frustrating, I mean, as a small business, it's very frustrating to spend that kind of time to get through to something that you can't even operate because you don't know how to proceed. You only have until December 15th, I believe, to make a final decision. When you can't even access the website to find out what those options are, it's very frustrating.
HOBSON: So Jack Lambert, what is the mood on the ground in Maryland? What are people saying to you?
LAMBERT: Well, you're seeing a lot of the same kind of frustrations that I guess were just expressed by David there. And my colleague Meredith Kadji(ph), wrote about a father who's trying to enroll him and his son in a plan. He couldn't find the plan options.
Here in Anaronda County, it's been a very slow process talking to the Department of Health here. They said that they're getting maybe 10 people a day who come by and even just kind of shop or - or express interest in possible enrollment, not even enrolling but just expressed interest. So everybody's acknowledging that in addition to problems people are having signing up, it's kind of a slow process for people to know kind of where to go.
HOBSON: Is there a plan to fix all of this?
LAMBERT: Right now, Governor Martin O'Malley said that the next month or so, he said this after the first couple days in October, are going to be spent kind of reconfiguring the website, making things faster. I was actually on the website the last couple hours rechecking it. I was able to kind of go through, and it worked for me, but I know it hasn't worked that way for a lot of people.
So you're going to see the state take down the sites sometimes on weekends, which they've done in the past, really do some things to make it go faster, but I think right now everybody's hoping for the best.
HOBSON: Jack Lambert, healthcare reporter for the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, thanks so much.
LAMBERT: Thank you for having me.
YOUNG: Well, and one of the things they might consider in Maryland is what Kentucky did. One of the reasons, as we heard yesterday, Kentucky's state plan is successful is because people can see information about plans before they have to enroll and go in an online rabbit hole. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.