Massachusetts will remain a state-based health care marketplace despite earlier website woes

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BOSTON — Massachusetts officials overseeing the state's hobbled health care exchange decided Friday to stick with new software designed to upgrade the website rather than switching over to the federal government's health insurance market.

For the past several months the state has adopted a "dual-track" approach that called for buying software that has powered insurance marketplaces in other states while also laying the groundwork for a switchover to the federal marketplace if necessary.

On Friday, Massachusetts Health Connector officials announced that Massachusetts will remain a state-based marketplace.

In a letter to head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Gov. Deval Patrick said officials will be rigorously testing the new system.

"We are poised to offer consumers a streamlined, single-point-of-entry shopping experience for health care plans in time for fall 2014 Open Enrollment," Patrick said in the letter to CMS administrator Marilyn Tavenner.

Earlier site problems dramatically slowed the state's transition to the federal Affordable Care Act from its own first-in-the-nation universal health insurance law that provided a model for President Barack Obama's plan.

Maydad Cohen, a special advisor Patrick who is overseeing the project, said the new software, known as hCentive, will deliver "a smooth consumer experience."

Cohen said the connector can now stop its contingency planning to join the federal marketplace and focus exclusively on expanding access to affordable, quality health insurance through hCentive.

Cohen said the state opted to front-load core technology into early releases of the software in order to demonstrate to CMS officials that it would function as planned and to be able to conduct "rigorous system testing" before the system goes live on November 15. That's the beginning of the enrollment period for insurance plans starting in January 2015.

"This decision means that the unique policies and programs that make us a national leader on access and affordability will continue," Cohen said. "It provides the market the certainty it needs about our path forward."

Cohen said unlike the federal marketplace, the hCentive system will offer additional Massachusetts-based premium assistance to help make health insurance more affordable for thousands of residents.

The new software is also working more smoothly with Dell, which is responsible for billing and enrollment transactions between insurers and consumers, Cohen added.

People currently in extended or temporary coverage through the Health Connector and MassHealth, along with those in Qualified Health Plans through the Health Connector, will need to complete new applications this fall in order to transition into new plans starting in 2015.

With the switch, Massachusetts officials are hoping to put the embarrassing rollout of the earlier website behind them. In June, state officials said they would pay CGI Group an additional $35 million to close out the contract, meaning CGI, which had already been paid about $17 million, will end up receiving $52 million of an $89 million contract.

Cohen said he is close to finalizing a contract with Optum, a health care technology firm retained by the state to work on the new website.

Patrick said that despite the problems with the website, Massachusetts still leads the nation in health care with more than 97 percent of residents insured.

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