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New England News

Health Insurance Enrollment Campaign Comes To Berkshires

Jim Levulis

The director of the Massachusetts Health Connector, the state’s online health insurance marketplace, met with Berkshire healthcare agencies Thursday ahead of the upcoming open enrollment period.The gathering at Berkshire Medical Center’s cancer facility in Pittsfield is part of a statewide public outreach effort before open enrollment begins November 15th. All of the more than 400,000 people who were either able to navigate the state’s fumbled rollout of the previous online marketplace or those placed in temporary coverage will have to reapply during the 90-day period using the state’s new website. Starting in December, those coverage programs will end in waves, according to the Connector’s executive director Jean Yang.

“Let me just say very explicitly that this is going to be a challenging task,” Yang said. “This to some extent is unprecedented.”

The old website was created to comply with the federal Affordable Care Act, a plan that was built on Massachusetts’ existing public healthcare law. Yang was open about the website’s failures.

“We had problems last year,” she said. “I wanted to apologize for all the difficulties, the confusion, the frustration that many people in the state experienced. That was not a good experience. No one was more frustrated than we were and we learned a lot from that experience.”

Following the struggles, the state changed leadership and oversight of the Connector and dumped its IT-vendor CGI Group. In May, the commonwealth outlined a plan for the new website using an off-the-shelf application called hCentive and enlisting Optum to serve as the new vendor. After adding 430 staffers and conducting more than 3,000 tests, Yang is confident the November re-launch will be successful, but adds around the clock work will continue.

“But we’re making progress,” Yang said. “We’ve seen enough to feel that this is going to be a reliable rollout [and] that we’re going to have the right IT system to serve its people. We’re very excited about that. We know we have a lot to prove to you all and we are looking forward to the opportunity to prove that it’s going to work.”

According to a Boston Globe editorial by Maydad Cohen, Governor Deval Patrick’s special assistant for project delivery, the original IT budget was $175 million. It is now $254 million dollars, with the state expected to carry $42 million, $26 million dollars more than expected. The federal government is expected to pick up the rest of the tab.

To help those 400,000 people and others enroll, the state has enlisted the help of 15 navigator organizations, up from 10 last year. Chip Joffe-Halpern of North Adams-based Ecu-Health Care directs one of those navigators.

“We need to make sure that all these individuals reapply for coverage,” Joffe-Halpern said. “Everyone has to reapply. No one wants to see anyone experience any gaps in their health insurance. I think in Berkshire County we’re well equipped to offer county residents the support they need to complete the application process.”

The two other county organizations are Community Health Programs and Advocacy for Access. Acknowledging state leaders were caught off guard last year, State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield insists those who don’t get health insurance through their employers will be able to this year.

“I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t feel really confident that this year it’s going to go smoother and that people in the community that need to be enrolled, need access to health insurance are going to be able to get it,” said Farley-Bouvier.

The outreach campaign includes phone calls, mailings and going door to door. Overall 97 percent of Massachusetts residents have health insurance. Yang says the state is trying to reach those totally uninsured as well.

“We will chase them down,” said Yang chuckling. “Until we find every single one.”

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