Maryland Plans Staggered Deadline for Second Affordable Care Act Enrollment Period

Entrance to emergency room at hospital
After many users experienced crashes and other technical difficulties while attempting to sign up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, many states are now readying their websites for the second enrollment period, which begins November 15. To prevent an overwhelming number of requests, Maryland officials are taking an unusual step: instead of opening their website to enrollment on the 15th, they plan to limit access to the website for several days to prevent glitching and other problems. However, health care advocates worry that this difference in schedule could further confuse the process.In a series of meetings in Annapolis and Baltimore on Tuesday, September 16, officials explained that the state website would go live on November 9, allowing visitors to browse plans but not enroll. Then, on November 15, state residents can sign up at an enrollment fair, the location of which has yet to be announced. On the 16th, a call center will start processing applications, and on the 17th, insurance brokers and navigators can begin registering their clients. The following day, the site will allow local health and social services caseworkers to enroll the needy. Finally, on November 19, the site opens to any Marylander interested in acquiring federal health coverage.

This year’s plan has a number of differences from the previous enrollment period: in 2013, the site opened on the official enrollment date, but required users to create an account before browsing plans. This resulted in an overwhelming number of requests that caused the website to crash on its first day. Since then, the state of Maryland has spent at least $40 million rebuilding the troubled site, borrowing technology from Connecticut’s more successful initiative. However, even the site’s technology officials say that it is impossible to predict the flaws that may emerge until people begin using the site.

Meanwhile, a number of health care activists have voiced concerns about the staggered opening dates. As a federal program operating at the state level, the national media and public advertising have focused on the November 15 opening date; how will Maryland’s residents react to the different dates that apply in their state after the confusion of the previous year?

Though the results of the improved website and unique enrollment plan won’t be seen until mid-November, other states already appear to have instituted more consistent, simple approaches to the second wave of enrollment. Alaska, for example, has already opened its website to allow state residents to create accounts and select plans. Like most of the country, enrollment will open on November 15, and continue until mid-February. While Alaska’s website was also plagued with problems last year, the state has amassed a number of navigators, assisters and certified application counselors to help Alaskans who lack computer access, have questions about financial requirements, or have other issues that prevent them from signing up themselves.

However, in many states, including Maryland and Alaska, the challenge is not those who still need coverage, but those who need to reapply: in Maryland, every resident who signed up for subsidized coverage during the first enrollment period must reapply by December 18 in order to receive their subsidy next year. This gives the state just one month to re-enroll an estimated 60,000 people who signed up over a period of roughly six months. Failing to reapply means that while coverage will continue, the government subsidy that covers all or part of the cost will disappear. And with almost every medical facility using or accepting health insurance, from primary care doctors to emergency rooms to urgent care centers, affordable coverage is vital.

As the second enrollment period approaches, state health officials are outwardly positive about the improved website. While the staggered enrollment has yet to be tested, state health insurance officials and insurance companies have said that they have planned an aggressive campaign of emails, letters and phone calls to explain the re-enrollment process to their customers.

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