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'Another Government Boondoggle': Maryland Health Connection Unplugged

Of the 4,000 comments users submitted on the website, only 15 were positive.

Comment from the Maryland Health Connection website being read by a Capital News reporter. (Screenshot from CNS video)
Comment from the Maryland Health Connection website being read by a Capital News reporter. (Screenshot from CNS video)
By Kirsten Peterson, CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

Just hours after the troubled Maryland Health Connection website launched on Oct. 1, the negative comments from frustrated users started to pour in. 

Visitors to the state website, which was designed to help uninsured Marylanders obtain health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, used a feedback form to immediately complain that they were unable to create accounts to search for health plans. They angrily reported frozen web pages, broken links, poor site design and other complaints.

The Maryland Health Benefit Exchange board voted April 1 to scrap the broken website and rebuild it with technology from Connecticut’s successful online insurance marketplace.

Between Oct. 1 and Dec. 12, 2013, users of the Maryland Health Connection website submitted more than 4,000 comments through the feedback form. Capital News Service submitted a Public Information Act request for the comments, which state officials provided after redacting identifying personal information.

Some commenters offered one-word feedback ("Pathetic," "No") while others went into great detail about specific problems.

Of the 4,000 comments, only 15 were positive, Capital News Service found. The comments are filled with examples of bad grammar, poor spelling, sarcasm, profanity, political attacks on Gov. Martin O'Malley and racist comments about President Barack Obama.

Taken in total, the comments offer an inside look at specific problems experienced by real users of a site that has been plagued by problems since launch.

Several of the problems users expressed in the beginning, such as the inability to create an account or change their password, have been resolved since December.

After the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange board voted to replace the troubled website, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Gov. Martin O’Malley released a joint statement, which recognized the shortcomings of the online marketplace but also asserted that the website will be ready for the next open enrollment period in November.

“The hard work of getting so many Marylanders enrolled was made even tougher because Maryland’s health exchange website did not meet expectations—a source of great frustration, especially for those who were trying to obtain healthcare for the very first time,” the statement said. “Our Administration has not succeeded at every first try, but we have never given up. We learn from both success and failure. The vendors we hired failed to build us the platform they promised. So now that the first open enrollment period has ended, we’ve decided to upgrade our website."

A major issue in the first few days of the launch was the inability to create an account, which was required to browse plans.

“How in the world do you simply create an account to begin this process? I get to a point where it asks me if I have 'forgotten my username or password' ? How in the hell could I have "forgotten" it when it was NEVER set up to begin with .................................” one user wrote on Oct. 2.

“Beautiful site. Just not functional. I hit get started and it took me to a sign in page. But didn't allow me to actually sign up ... only sign in with my username and password that I can't figure out how to sign up for!” another user wrote the same day.

Dori Henry, the director of the office of communications for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said this error was resolved in mid-October and the account creation function has worked properly ever since.

Several users were told their passwords were incorrect and when they tried to reset them, the link did not work.

"I created an account but now you tell me my password is wrong. You password reset site is not working. If you can't even get a simple website right, how are you going to get my health care right? Stop this nonsense now," one user wrote on Oct. 2.

“I missed my password twice because I forgot the capital letter. My account is now disabled. What do I do. HELP!” another user wrote on Nov. 1.
Henry said this glitch was addressed in December and January and improvements were made to the self-service password function in February.

Some users used the form to vent about their frustration with the Obama administration.

“I hate the Obamas. All OF THEM AND THIS BILL,” one user wrote on Oct. 7.
“Your website does not work. I've no idea why we voted for someone who thought it would be a good idea to give the government more control of our lives ...” another user wrote on Oct. 29.

“You should have had the DMV or the post office running things. par for the course for another government boondoggle,” one user wrote on Oct. 3.

Comments like those submitted to the feedback form are considered public records and can be requested by media organizations. According to the Maryland Health Connection’s General Website Privacy policy, “e-mail correspondence may become a public record. As a public record, your correspondence could be disclosed to other parties upon their request in accordance with Maryland’s Public Information Act.”

Despite this, some commenters did not expect their complaints to be read by anyone other than the webmaster, if at all. 

“Are you going to publicize the feedback responses? I doubt it,” one user wrote on Oct. 3.

Did you use the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange website? Tell us in the comments!
Brigitta Mullican April 03, 2014 at 06:38 PM
This problem does not surprise me. There are always contractors ribbing off the government because of the mandatory programs. It bothers me a lot that my tax dollars are wasted on systems that don't work. Our country is paying a bigger price than estimated for the Obamacare. Why can't there be one national health insurance plan available so it would be so much easier for people to have health insurance? Mandating health insurance is not necessarily the answer. If it was reasonable, more people would support it.
jag April 04, 2014 at 12:34 AM
"Why can't there be one national health insurance plan available so it would be so much easier for people to have health insurance?" Because, despite Medicare's very high approval ratings among users (and VERY low overhead costs, compared to for-profit companies), a certain party - hint: it begins with an "R" - was very much against the "socialist" idea of a national healthcare plan for all. You're right that it'd be exceedingly simple, cheaper to run, and would lower the cost of healthcare overall, thanks to the economies of scale (which is a main reason why the cost of healthcare is so much lower in the rest of the developed than it is here), but all that makes way too much sense to enact in this country. After all, it's only proven to have worked in every other developed country in the world and in our own country, in the form of Medicare.
Karen Essen April 04, 2014 at 11:26 AM
Oh my goodness, the very people Obama is pandering to are displeased! "Let them eat cake!"
Alan Burdette Jr. April 07, 2014 at 07:11 PM
Canada has a one nation health plan. A friend of a friend is a resident there and he is older like 55 or 60. He broke his hip. He was told by his physician that it would be nine months till he could have the surgery he needed to reset his hip. Luckily he had enough money to get transported to the US and paid for the surgery out of his own pocket . This is a great example of government run healthcare. The government can not even run the government, how do you think they are supposed to run healthcare. Oh yeah, by the way. You will not be able to make your own major health decisions. Did you know that.
jag April 09, 2014 at 02:38 PM
Oh, yes, of course you have a Canadian friend with a bum hip. It's not like that's a long-since debunked far-Right talking point of anything.... "The government can not even run the government, how do you think they are supposed to run healthcare." Again, Medicare is a single-payer, govt run insurance program that is well-regarded by its customers and has much lower costs/overhead than what you find from private insurers. The US govt (not to mention every other western govt on the planet) has already proven what you say is impossible.

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