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Massachusetts officials anticipate smooth health care enrollment period after rocky 2 years


BOSTON — Massachusetts officials hope the third time will be the charm for the state's health connector when the next open enrollment period begins for qualified insurance plans.

Louis Gutierrez, the connector's executive director, said in a conference call with reporters on Friday that a number of technical fixes and enhancements have been added to the website over the past year, and he expects a smoother experience for most customers.

Open enrollment begins Sunday and runs through Jan. 31.

The state's first-in-the-nation health care program served as a model for President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. But the transition to the federal program in 2013 and 2014 proved disastrous, forcing the administration of then-Gov. Deval Patrick to place hundreds of thousands of residents into temporary Medicaid coverage.

The website was rebuilt for the start of last year's open enrollment and while things worked better, glitches persisted.

Gov. Charlie Baker knocked on the wooden desk in his office when asked if he was optimistic about the latest sign-up period.

"Obviously the health connector has been a total crackup for the last couple of years and the commonwealth has spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of people have had their lives disrupted as a result of that," said Baker. "I'm expecting that for the vast majority of people for whom the last couple of years has been a nightmare that the process should go smoothly."

The breakdowns and subsequent rebuilding of the health exchange has cost the state an estimated $285 million, said Gutierrez, who was hired by Baker after the Republican took office in January.

Among the enhancements being rolled out for the new open enrollment period is a feature that will allow users who want to renew their current coverage without changes to do so quickly and not have to plow through the entire application process, Gutierrez said.

Other upgrades include a revamped system for making online payments and a new account-change function that allows members to update personal information, such as a new address, new job or the birth of a child. In the past, such changes could only be made by calling customer service.

While more enhancements are expected when the final version of the current software is released in 2017, "there isn't anything we are deeply regretting walking into this open enrollment period," Gutierrez said.

About 182,000 residents are currently signed up for medical insurance through the connector, a figure that state officials expect will climb to about 190,000 by the end of the open enrollment period. Another 45,000 obtain dental insurance through the connector.

Despite recent problems with the exchange, Massachusetts maintains a 96 percent rate of insured residents. The connector is focused on reaching pockets of uninsured people in several urban areas, including Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, Worcester, Lowell, Lawrence, Lynn, Quincy, Brockton, New Bedford and Fall River, officials said.

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