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Md. Health Exchange Delayed In Opening

BALTIMORE (AP) -- The opening of Maryland's online health benefit exchange was delayed Tuesday by problems with the exchange website, and the state's health secretary said a technical team was working on a solution to a bottleneck that developed when the website couldn't handle the volume of people trying to create accounts all at once.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein said about 65,000 people visited the website by late Tuesday afternoon. More than 1,000 people telephoned a call center standing by to help people with questions. Sharfstein said the website asked people to check back later, because technicians were testing a solution to the problem.

"We hope to have it resolved as quickly as possible, but until it's resolved it's hard to say," Sharfstein said, when asked how long he expected the delay will be.

Despite the holdup, supporters cheered the first day of a six-month open-enrollment period.

Katie League, an outreach and enrollment manager at Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore, used paper applications to register people in the morning, when the website had problems shortly after opening. She said she wasn't surprised by the opening delay, because there are a lot of moving parts.

"Today is the start of preseason," she said. "You know, not every quarterback is ready on the first day of preseason."

Federal, state and local officials held a news conference at the Baltimore facility to focus on Maryland's expansion of Medicaid as part of the health care overhaul. Maryland is one of 25 states and the District of Columbia that have opted to expand Medicaid.

"This is an important day in the life of our country," Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., said. "It's an important day for those who believe that being an American citizen means you should have access to decent, affordable health care coverage."

Sarbanes criticized House Republicans for the government shutdown in Washington because some opposed the health care law.

"It's more what you would expect from, sort of, children having a temper tantrum ..." Sarbanes said, noting the Supreme Court upheld the law's constitutionality.

Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's lone Republican congressman, said the House "will continue to attempt to end the special treatment of big business and members of Congress and their staff under Obamacare."

"We will also act on a daily basis to deal with any issues that arise by restoring temporary funding to parts of the government that were inappropriately shut down by the president," Harris said in a statement. "Today we dealt with two such issues -- restoring funding for the Veterans Administration handling of disability claims, and for reopening of national parks such as the World War II Memorial."

Barbara DiPietro is the facility's senior director of policy and the director of policy for the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. She said the expansion will enable the facility to offer more comprehensive health services and specialized care to homeless clients. DiPietro said there is a limit to what the facility can do in a primary-care setting, because many people who come for help need specialty care.

"It allows us to connect them to a broader range of care," DiPietro said of the Medicaid expansion.

Tony Simmons, a 52-year-old homeless man, described his difficulties getting the health care services he was seeking in recent weeks when he had the flu. Simmons is one of about 81,000 people in Maryland who participate in the Primary Adult Care Program who will automatically be eligible for Medicaid in January. He described the PAC program as "just enough medicine."

"It will mean a whole lot to me," Simmons said about being eligible for Medicaid. "It really does. It does my heart joy to feel that now we're on an even playing field with everyone else with health care."

Meanwhile, staff members for the state's new health insurance marketplace worked at locations around the state to help people enroll with in-person help. For example, Door to HealthCare, which is the Maryland Health Connection's official consumer assistance organization in six western Maryland counties, is offering help at 40 locations in Allegany, Carroll, Frederick, Garrett, Howard and Washington counties. Locations include the offices of 15 contracted partners, departments of social services, local health departments, community-based organizations, libraries and health clinics.

Maryland is one of the states that has developed its own state-based exchange to focus on the needs of state residents. State officials emphasized that coverage for qualified health plans through the exchange won't be effective until January, leaving plenty of time to enroll.

State officials estimate 150,000 people will enroll in qualified health plans during the first year. Another 100,000 uninsured residents are expected to be insured through the Medicaid expansion. Maryland now has an estimated 800,000 uninsured residents, about 14 percent of the state's 5.8 million residents. The state estimates about half of them will be insured by 2020.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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