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Re-vamped Md. Obamacare exchange starts

(Oct. 24, 2014) If you’re in the market for public health insurance, get ready to sign up. And if you signed up last year, get ready to do it all over again.

In either instance, keep your fingers crossed.

Maryland’s Health Exchange system is slated to re-open Nov. 9, using the entirely new website and database borrowed from Connecticut following the stream of technical difficulties that plagued Maryland’s own system during its rollout last year.

This means that the 72,000 people who were able to enroll in Maryland last year will have to re-input their information this year. Further, many are skeptical that the new system will be any easier.

“After training on the Connecticut technology, it is just as difficult to use as last year’s Maryland software,” said Chris Keen of Keen Insurance in West Ocean City. “Certain questions the user is asked haven’t really been changed. These are the same questions that caused problems last year.”

On the upside, Keen said, the Connecticut system is supposed to correct the internal math errors – not caused by the users – that caused the system to incorrectly calculate the subsidy level for a given insurance plan as proscribed by the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare.

“The hope this year is that the subsidies are at least correct,” Keen said. “The issue comes from user questions. When you’re determining your income, do I put just my wages, do I add unemployment, gifts, social security? These kinds of questions are still things the user has to fill out.”

Maryland is one of a few states that has elected to run its own healthcare exchange network, as mandated by the federal Affordable Care Act, rather than pay the federal government to incorporate the state in to the federal healthcare.gov system.

By subscribing to the exchange, people who are uninsured or under-insured by their employer can pool their buying power to purchase their own private insurance plans, many of which are subsidized by the federal government.

Anyone making less than 400 percent of the poverty line will receive some type of discount, depending on the level of coverage they select.

Statewide, roughly 72,000 Marylanders enrolled last year. Keen had about 250 enrollees in the Ocean City area last year, all of whom will have to be re-enrolled in the next two months.

Even with the Connecticut technology, Maryland’s system is still having issues with allowing users to make corrections. Any changes have to be made from inside the system by health exchange employees.

“Once you make an error, you can’t change it until someone at the exchange does it,” Keen said. Like many, Keen has developed his own system to figure out what an individual’s subsidy should be, based on federal guidelines, regardless of what the system spits out.

“My fear is how I’ll get the subsidies corrected if they turn out to be wrong,” he said. “The hope, obviously, is that the Connecticut system will finally get them right.”

For 2015, the federal government has increased penalties for individuals who do not carry health insurance or are not exempted via Medicare. The IRS will charge a penalty of two percent of Adjusted Gross Income.

“I would say half of my clients have had coverage before, where they had purchased their own plan because they did not have it available through an employer, and half were actually new purchasers of insurance who, because of the federal subsidy, were just now able to find it affordable,” Keen said.

Employers of a certain size are required by the ACA to offer a certain level of coverage to employees, who are not eligible for subsidized plans on the exchange if they have a qualified “affordable plan” through their employer.

Only businesses with 100 or more full-time or equivalent employees – calculated by adding up total hours and dividing by 120 hours per month – must provide insurance. Next year, all businesses with over 50 will fall under the requirement.

“Basically, the federal government cut employers between 50 and 99 some slack for this year,” Keen said.

However, the legislation does still have one major flaw that has yet to be fixed. If an employee is offered a qualified plan through their employer, they are barred from getting any subsidy on the exchange. For some reason, this also applies to their spouse or children, even if the employer does not offer coverage that would qualify as “affordable” for the whole family.

“That’s not a glitch in the Connecticut system, that’s how the law was written,” Keen said. “It’s one of the biggest holes. But because of the gridlock in DC, nothing’s happening to get it changed.”

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