On Oct. 15, I had spent about 30 minutes on the phone with a Maryland Health Connection customer service rep creating an application for insurance, which the state-run exchange requires before shopping for 2014 health plan options. I was further along in the process than my previous six application attempts—four online tries and two over the phone.
When I was asked if I had coverage, and answered yes, the rep told me her screen froze. "There appears to be a glitch in the system," the rep told me. That was one of several glitches I experienced while trying to shop for an Obamacare insurance policy. The rep said to expect a callback "in a day or so." I doubted that. I eventually persevered and created enough of an application before the end of October to see my 34 options for family coverage offered in my ZIP code.
I eventually held off shopping for a plan on the exchange until December, primarily because my current insurer was late in notifying me that my monthly premium would jump from $823 to $1,110 beginning in January. That was a key part of my calculus before I decide what plan to buy for 2014.
Still, that was no excuse for the Maryland exchange's dismal performance. I eventually discovered that it was set up to accept applications from the uninsured, not the currently insured, and initially catered to people who would be eligible for subsidies, rather than those like me who don't qualify for assistance. There were other hassles too: a sluggish website, which often bumped me out of the system; customer service reps who did not seem to have a handle on all the rules; and other technical issues.
And on Dec. 11, I did get that promised return call—a voice mail from the exchange that told me the earlier problem I experienced when calling into the exchange on Oct. 15 has been resolved—along with a reference number for my application. I logged back onto the exchange to find some of the earlier issues had been resolved. Still, I had to call in to complete an application before I could purchase a plan. I waited 40 minutes on hold, then found the exchange had no record of me or my reference number. I had to start an application from scratch, which took another half hour, before being told I had to go online to choose my plan.
Fighting my rising agitation, I logged onto Maryland's exchange, put in my family's four primary care providers and chose CareFirst BlueChoice Gold $1,000 HMO. I was informed that only one of the four doctors was in network. The system froze. I logged back on, happy to see that it remembered who I was and retained my plan choice and four primary care doctors. This time, it listed our four providers, but incorrectly listing them as a medical lab, respiratory therapists and a pathology technician.
As my choice was an HMO, it required me to pick primary care doctors for my family members—even though I already did. Maryland has some 800,000 uninsured residents and another 400,000 in the individual market, but though Dec. 7 only 5,179 individuals had enrolled in qualified health plans. When adding new Medicaid-eligible individuals (previously uninsured) to the mix, "nearly 110,000 Marylanders are on track for coverage beginning Jan. 1, 2014," noted the exchange.
After putting in at least 15 hours over the last two months trying to buy health insurance, I had enough. I bought the same policy off the exchange without any hassles (see main story).