ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The Maryland Senate voted Tuesday for an emergency measure to provide health insurance for people who tried to enroll online in the state's health exchange but couldn't because of computer problems.
The bill, which still needs House approval, would enable people to enroll in an already existing state insurance pool called the Maryland Health Insurance Program. The program is a separate safety net plan that has served as a high-risk pool for state residents without insurance. Because the bill is an emergency measure, it would take effect as soon as it is signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, whose administration proposed the bill.
"We're not leaving anybody behind," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, said. "We don't want anybody saying in April or May: 'You know, I wish I got on board, but I was precluded by the government.' You're not going to be precluded by the government. You have an opportunity to participate in the program if you so desire."
State officials have estimated it could cost as much as $10 million to provide coverage for eligible residents. Supporters also have described the measure as a backup plan for residents who still are not able to enroll, even after four health exchange providers agreed last week to extend a signup deadline to 5 p.m. Tuesday for people to enroll effective Jan. 1. By widening potential participants in MHIP, the state is creating a way to cover people who fall through the cracks, supporters said.
Four Republicans joined 34 Democrats in voting for the bill. Eight Republicans voted against it.
Republicans who voted for the bill said they did not support President Barack Obama's health care reform law or the state's decision to create its own health exchange, but they believe the state must act help people hurt by the flawed roll after the health care overhaul became the law of the land.
"This is the remediation for those people that have been harmed," said Sen. David Brinkley, R-Frederick.
Republican Sens. Edward Reilly, of Anne Arundel County, George Edwards, of Garrett County, and Allan Kittleman, of Howard County, also voted for the bill.
Opponents have criticized a lack of information about past and continuing problems with the exchange. They contend too many questions remain about costs to move forward with the emergency bill or even the state exchange. Sen. Christopher Shank, R-Washington, criticized the state of "gross mismanagement."
Democratic U.S. Rep. John Delaney on Tuesday urged the state's health secretary to switch to the federal exchange while problems with Maryland's are resolved.
"In Maryland, we're falling well short of our enrollment goal for private coverage and we're also sending Medicaid enrollees faulty applications containing the private information of strangers," Delaney wrote to Dr. Joshua Sharfstein. "These are egregious and unacceptable errors that raise serious doubts about the viability of our exchange."
State officials initially estimated between a few hundred and 5,000 people could end up enrolling in MHIP under the legislation. However, supporters say the number will be less than first expected after the four exchange providers decided to extend the signup deadline. Through Monday, 599 households had signed up for retroactive coverage, said Dori Henry, a spokeswoman for the health department. She said it could take a couple of weeks for all enrollments to be finalized before the state has a final number of total people enrolled in retroactive coverage.
About 22,510 residents had enrolled in private plans in the exchange through Jan. 11, state officials reported Friday. In addition, 29,517 had enrolled in Medicaid, and another 93,514 were rolled automatically into Medicaid through the Primary Adult Care program. The state is trying to extend health insurance to 260,000 by March 31.