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Massachusetts health insurance marketplace: history and news of the state’s exchange

Open enrollment for 2020 coverage has been extended through January 23

Highlights and updates

Massachusetts exchange overview

State legislative efforts to preserve or strengthen provisions of the Affordable Care Act

Massachusetts is one of the states fighting the hardest to preserve the Affordable Care Act’s gains. See the steps Massachusetts has taken.

Massachusetts runs its own exchange, Massachusetts Health Connector. It’s an active purchaser exchange, which means the exchange determines which plans are offered for sale (the exchange prefers to limit the number of available plans; details below).

The exchange in Massachusetts predates the ACA by several years; health care reform that took effect in Massachusetts in 2006 was widely considered a blueprint for the ACA. Massachusetts has a very robust exchange, with more participating carriers than most states.

Residents in Massachusetts have access to the federal ACA subsidies, and many (those with income up to 300 percent of the poverty level) also have access to state subsidies via ConnectorCare (details below), although those subsidies are not as robust as they were in previous years.

Massachusetts has the lowest uninsured rate in the country, with only 2.8 percent of the state’s population uninsured as of 2017, according to U.S. Census data. This is due to both the ACA and the health care reform measures that Massachusetts put in place in 2006. The Massachusetts exchange also has the nation’s lowest average premiums in 2019, which was also the case in 2018.

And there are eight insurers offering plans for 2019, which makes Massachusetts Health Connector one of the most robust exchanges in the country in terms of insurer competition. This 2018 Health Affairs article details some of the reasons for the exchange’s success.

Massachusetts and Vermont are the only two states where the individual and small group risk pools have been merged (DC also has a modified merged risk pool, but it operates more like the rest of the country, and less like Vermont and Massachusetts), which means that the individual market is less volatile than many other states.

Massachusetts also caps the age rating ratio for premiums at 2:1, so older enrollees cannot be charged more than two times as much as younger enrollees. The ACA set the ratio at 3:1, which nearly every other state utilizes. New York and Vermont are the only other states that don’t use the 3:1 ratio, and they both prohibit age rating altogether, using a 1:1 ratio instead.

Open enrollment window for 2020 plans has been extended until January 23, 2020

Under federal guidelines, open enrollment for 2020 health plans in the individual market runs from November 1 until December 15, with all plans effective January 1. But states that run their own exchanges have the option to extend open enrollment by tacking on a special enrollment period, either before or after the regular enrollment window.

Massachusetts has opted to do so for 2020 enrollment, and has announced that residents will be able to enroll, on- or off-exchange, from November 1, 2019 until January 23, 2020. In Massachusetts, enrollments completed by the 23rd of the month are effective the first of the following month (as opposed to a 15th of the month enrollment deadline in most states). So residents who enroll by December 23 will have coverage effective January 1, while those who enroll between December 24 and January 23 will have coverage effective February 1.

2020 rates and plans

For 2020, Massachusetts Health Connector’s insurers have filed the following average rate changes:

  • Boston Medical Center/BMC HealthNet Plan (BMCHP): 7 percent increase
  • Fallon Community Health Plan: 3 percent increase
  • Health New England (HNE): 4.9 percent increase
  • AllWays Health Partners (formerly Neighborhood Health Plan): No filings available on the federal rate review website
  • Tufts HMO: 3.7 percent increase
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts (BCBSMA): 8.6 percent increase
  • Harvard Pilgrim Health Care (HPHC): 0.26 percent decrease
  • UnitedHealthcare: 2.7 percent increase

Three other insurers—HPHC Insurance Company, ConnectiCare, and Tufts Insurance Company—only offer plans outside the exchange. Across all plans, the overall weighted average proposed rate increase is about 4.5 percent. Rates are still under review by state regulators. For perspective, average premiums increased by about 4.7 percent in Massachusetts in 2019, as detailed below.

ConnectorCare

ConnectorCare plans are qualified health plans (QHPs), but they have year-round enrollment (albeit with limitations). ConnectorCare plans qualify for the federally-funded ACA premium tax credits, but they’re also subsidized by the state, resulting in even lower premium and out-of-pocket costs for eligible residents. ConnectorCare plans are available to enrollees with incomes up to 300 percent of the poverty level, and there are three different plan levels depending on enrollees’ income level.

ConnectorCare plans are offered by five of Massachusetts Health Connector’s insurers: Boston Medical Center HealthNet Plan,
Fallon Health, Health New England, AllWays/Neighborhood Health Plan, and Tufts Health Plan Direct.

Although MassHealth (Medicaid) enrollment is available year-round to any applicant who’s eligible for coverage, ConnectorCare is only available outside of open enrollment if the enrollee is either newly eligible (ie, didn’t qualify for ConnectorCare in the past) or hasn’t previously applied.

Starting in 2017, people who have ConnectorCare health insurance plans through Massachusetts Health Connector no longer have to pay copays if they need outpatient substance abuse treatment or medications, including Methadone and Suboxone.

The new rules do not apply to people who pay full-price for their coverage, or for those with income between 300 and 400 percent of the poverty level, who qualify only for the ACA’s subsidies, but not ConnectorCare. But more than three-quarters of the Massachusetts Health Connector’s private plan (QHP) enrollees are in ConnectorCare plans.

ConnectorCare is essentially the ACA-compliant replacement for Massachusetts’ pre-ACA Commonwealth Care program. Commonwealth Care also provided state-subsidized coverage for residents with incomes up to 300 percent of the poverty level, but it was scheduled to terminate at the end of 2013 and be replaced with ConnectorCare. Due to technological problems, the transition was delayed until 2015. Commonwealth Care was closed to new enrollees as of the end of 2013, but it continued to provide coverage for existing members until January 31, 2015. Commonwealth Care members needed to transition to ConnectorCare or another program (depending on eligibility) as of February 2015. The Commonwealth Care program’s regulations were officially repealed by the Massachusetts Health Connector’s board during their June 2015 meeting.

2019 rates and plans

Average premiums for Massachusetts Health Connector plans are 4.7 percent higher for 2019 than they were for 2018. The average increase by insurer ranges from a 1.4 percent average increase for Tufts Health Plan Direct (which covers 43 percent of the state’s exchange enrollees) to 11.3 percent for Fallon Health (which covers just 4 percent of enrollees):

  • BMC HealthNet Plan (BMCHP): 7 percent increase
  • Fallon Community Health Plan: 11.3 percent increase
  • Health New England (HNE): 1.9 percent increase
  • Neighborhood Health Plan (NHP; became AllWays Health Partners as of January 2019): 5.9 percent increase
  • Tufts Health Plan: 1.4 percent increase for Direct, and 3.5 percent increase for Premier
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts (BCBSMA): 7.8 percent increase
  • Harvard Pilgrim Health Care (HPHC): 4.9 percent increase
  • UnitedHealthcare: New to the exchange for 2019 (after exiting at the end of 2016)

The exchange reported that for the 58,021 members who don’t receive any subsidies, average premiums (assuming they keep their existing plans) would be 2.7 percent higher in 2019.

State law in Massachusetts requires insurers to sell plans on the exchange if they have more than 5,000 enrollees in the merged individual/small group market. As of 2018, UnitedHealthcare had more than 5,000 enrollees in small group plans in Massachusetts, so they had to file plans to offer on-exchange coverage in both the individual and small group markets for 2019 (but only in the Boston metro area). But David Wichmann, chief executive of UnitedHealth Group, clarified that returning to the exchange “wasn’t necessarily a voluntary decision on our part.”

UnitedHealthcare previously participated in the Massachusetts exchange, but exited at the end of 2016. Prior to their exit, they only insured about 1 percent of the exchange’s enrollees. The only other states where UnitedHealthcare still offers exchange plans are Nevada and New York.

Massachusetts individual mandate remains in effect

Massachusetts has had an individual mandate since 2006, and it remains in effect after the ACA’s individual mandate penalty was eliminated at the end of 2018. The state re-implemented employer health coverage reporting in 2018, after suspended it in 2014, when the ACA took effect. The employer mandate and associated employer informational reporting will remain in effect at the federal level in 2019 and beyond, but the state has begun enforcing its own individual mandate again in 2019, so employer reporting once again plays a role.

Penalty amounts under Massachusetts’ individual mandate are based on residents’ income and the cost of various plans in the exchange. And unlike the ACA penalty, the Massachusetts penalty only applies to adults. From 2014 through 2018, the cost of federal individual mandate penalties were subtracted from the state’s individual mandate, so people didn’t have to pay both penalties if they were uninsured in Massachusetts. But starting in 2019, the state’s penalty will apply in full. 2018 penalty amounts for Massachusetts are available here.

Massachusetts is penalizing employers if employees get MassHealth or ConnectorCare coverage

In an effort to offset the financial impact of employers shifting the cost of health care onto the state, and to help cover the state’s increasing Medicaid expenses, Massachusetts enacted H.3822 in 2017. The legislation imposes a financial penalty on employers if they have employees who enroll in MassHealth (Medicaid) or ConnectorCare (state-subsidized health insurance available through the exchange). The penalty is called the Employer Medical Assistance Contribution Supplement, or EMAC Supplement, and has been implemented for 2018 and 2019.

The EMAC Supplement is collected as a line item on the employer’s quarterly unemployment contributions (starting with the April 2018 contribution), and is equal to 5 percent of the wages of the employee who enrolled in MassHealth or ConnectorCare, although there’s a cap on the penalty of $750 per year, per employee. The EMAC Supplement applies to employers with six or more employees — a far lower threshold than the ACA’s employer mandate, which only requires employers to offer health coverage if they have 50 or more employees.

To be clear, the new Massachusetts rule does not require small employers to offer coverage. But it charges them an assessment (smaller than the ACA’s employer-mandate penalty, but not insignificant) if their employees have income that makes them eligible for MassHealth or ConnectorCare. To avoid the EMAC Supplement charge, the employer can either boost wages or offer affordable coverage.

If an employer offers affordable, minimum value coverage and the employee rejects it, the employee would not be eligible for ConnectorCare, since that coverage isn’t available to people who have access to an affordable employer-sponsored plan that provides minimum value. But a person whose income is low enough to qualify for MassHealth is eligible regardless of access to employer-sponsored coverage, so an employee whose wages are low enough to qualify for MassHealth would trigger the employer penalty under the new EMAC Supplement system.

The EMAC Supplement charge does not apply to employees who earn less than $500 in wages during the quarter, and it also does not apply to disabled workers. It also does not apply if an employee obtains coverage via the Massachusetts exchange and qualifies for only ACA-premium subsidies. Those subsidies are provided by the federal government. But ConnectorCare subsidies are provided by the state, and the EMAC Supplement is intended to defray some of the state’s costs.

Incidentally, a 2013 report that listed employers with more than 50 employees receiving state-subsidized coverage under safety-net health plans (mostly MassHealth) indicated that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was the employer with the highest number of employees receiving state-subsidized coverage, followed by S&S Credit Company and then WalMart.

In addition to the EMAC Supplement that applies if employees are enrolled in MassHealth or ConnectorCare, H.3822 also temporarily increases the existing EMAC (which has been in place since 2014) from a maximum of $51 per employee per year to a maximum of $77 per employee per year. This fee applies to employers with six or more employees, regardless of whether employees are enrolled in state-funded health care programs, and regardless of whether the employer offers coverage. The temporary increase applies in 2018 and 2019. There is expected to still be a budget shortfall for MassHealth, even with the higher EMAC and EMAC Supplement revenue.

Standardized plans

Massachusetts Health Connector offers both standardized and non-standardized plans from which enrollees can select. The standardized plans have the same out-of-pocket costs (within a metal level) for various benefit categories (eg. deductible, out-of-pocket maximum, office visit, emergency room, etc.), although standardized plans can vary significantly in terms of premiums, provider networks, and cost-sharing for benefits outside of the standardized categories.

Massachusetts carriers can—and do—also offer non-standardized plan designs that comply with the ACA’s requirements but have different out-of-pocket costs for the nine benefit categories that apply to standardized plans.

Fewer plans – by design

Massachusetts Health Connectors is an active purchaser which means that the exchange sets criteria for participating health plans, negotiates with insurers, and ultimately decides which health plans will be for sale through the exchange (some states have clearinghouse exchange models instead, which means the exchange accepts all plans that meet the QHP guidelines). As an example, the Connector requires each participating carrier to offer plans at all four metal levels; the ACA only requires exchange carriers to offer at least one gold plan and one silver plan (in many areas of the country, there are no longer any platinum plan for sale; in Massachusetts, there are platinum plans for sale from each of the insurers).

The exchange utilized its active purchaser role for 2016 to limit the number of available plans.  For 2015, there were 126 plans are available, and the Connector said that would decrease to 81 or fewer for 2016. The exchange felt the previously-available plethora of plan options—often with only minor differences from one plan to another—made the selection process too confusing for enrollees. By 2018, there were only 52 individual market plans for sale via MA Health Connector, although that increased to 57 for 2019.

The move to simplify plan offerings starting in 2016 was met with mixed opinions from board members and stakeholders.

Massachusetts Health Connector enrollment: 2014-2019

The Health Connector reported that it enrolled 308,000 people into coverage in 2014, although most were enrolled in temporary MassHealth coverage while technological problems at the exchange were addressed (fewer than 32,000 people were actually enrolled in private qualified health plans through the exchange).

In order to deal with the technical problems, the exchange switched to a platform created by hCentive for the second open enrollment period, but the technology change meant that everyone needed to re-enroll for 2015—including those who weren’t eligible for subsidies and weren’t enrolled in the temporary coverage through MassHealth.

[Massachusetts was one of two states (the other was Oregon) where 2014 enrollees had to re-enroll for 2015 in order to keep their coverage. In a few other states—Idaho, Maryland, and Nevada—consumers needed to re-enroll for 2015 in order to keep their subsidies.]

With the new hCentive platform in place, enrollments in QHPs shot up to more than 140,000 people. And additional technology fixes for 2016 resulted in another sharp increase in enrollments, to nearly 214,000 people.

Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states where enrollment has climbed every year since then, reaching nearly 302,000 people during the open enrollment period for 2019 coverage.

Here’s a summary of how many people have enrolled in QHPs through Massachusetts Health Connector each year, during open enrollment:

The majority of the QHP enrollees in the Massachusetts marketplace are enrolled in ConnectorCare plans (for people with income up to 300 percent of the poverty level, with additional state-based subsidies). Enrollment in ConnectorCare plans continues year-round, with some limitations, so effectuated enrollment does not tend to decline throughout the year in Massachusetts, as it does in most other states.


Changes in insurer participation over time

Massachusetts Health Connector is one of the nation’s most robust exchanges, with eight insurers offering plans in 2019. But there have been some changes in insurer participation over the years:

UnitedHealthcare exited the individual market in Massachusetts at the end of 2016, but they covered just one percent of the exchange’s enrollees in 2016. Dental carriers Guardian and MetLife exited the exchange at the end of 2016, but they only offered group dental coverage, rather than individual market coverage.

Minuteman Health—an ACA-created CO-OP that operated in Massachusetts and New Hampshire—closed at the end of 2017. Facing financial instability, which Minuteman Health noted was due in part to the way the ACA’s risk adjustment program allocated money and the shortfall in risk corridor payments, the CO-OP announced in June 2017 that they would stop offering plans at the end of 2017, but their intention at that point was to reopen as a for-profit insurer in 2018.

In August 2017, however, it became apparent that Minuteman would not be able to reopen as a for-profit insurer in 2018, because they had not raised enough capital by the August 16 deadline to get licensed as a new insurer. As a result, Minuteman Health enrollees in Massachusetts and New Hampshire had to switch to new plans for 2018, and did not have an opportunity to buy a for-profit version of Minuteman coverage.

A July 2017 Health Connector memo indicated that CeltiCare (Ambetter) would not participate in the individual market in Massachusetts in 2018. But Massachusetts Health Connector’s July enrollment report noted that CeltiCare had zero percent of the QHP and small group enrollments in 2017, and just 1 percent of the ConnectorCare enrollments. So their departure did not have a significant impact.

For 2019, UnitedHealthcare returned to the exchange, although not of their own volition. Their return was triggered by the state’s rule that requires insurers that cover at least 5,000 people in the merged individual/small group market, and UnitedHealthcare hit that threshold in 2018.

2018 rates and insurers: Cost of CSR was added to silver plan premiums for 2018

As of October 12, Massachusetts Health Connector intended to implement premiums for 2018 that were based on the assumption that cost-sharing reduction (CSR) funding would continue in 2018. The average rate increase at that point was just 8.7 percent.

But it was later that same day that the Trump Administration announced that CSR funding would end immediately. Suddenly, insurers in states that had taken Massachusetts’ approach (assuming CSR funding would continue) were left scrambling to sort out their path forward. In nearly every state, the eventual result was that the cost of CSR got added to 2018 premiums (typically just to silver plan premiums, as CSR benefits only apply to silver plans).

Massachusetts did ultimately allow insurers to add the cost of CSR to silver plan premiums for 2018. The result was that silver plan premiums increased by an average of 26 percent in Massachusetts, instead of the 10.5 percent average increase they would have otherwise had. Overall, the average rate increase across all plans was 18 percent, driven in large part by the spike in silver plan rates.

Five of the eight returning exchange insurers added the cost of CSR to their silver plan premiums for 2018, resulting in the following overall average rate increases:

  • BMC HealthNet Plan (BMCHP): 28.8 percent. The average rate increase would have been 9.7 percent if CSR funding had continued.
  • Fallon Community Health Plan: 16.8 percent. The average rate increase would have been 9.8 percent if CSR funding had continued.
  • Health New England (HNE): 12.4 percent. The average rate increase would have been 6.8 percent if CSR funding had continued.
  • Neighborhood Health Plan (NHP): 23.4 percent. The average rate increase would have been 16.9 percent if CSR funding had continued.
  • Tufts Health Plan – Direct:19.9 percent. The average rate increase would have been 5.3 percent if CSR funding had continued (with 33 percent of the projected QHP enrollments, Tufts Direct, aka Tufts Health Public Plans, has the exchange’s largest market share)

There are three additional insurers that offer plans through Massachusetts Health Connector but that do not participate in the ConnectorCare program. As a result, they do not offer plans with CSR benefits, since CSR eligibility only applies to people who have ConnectorCare coverage (CSR eligibility extends to 250 percent of the poverty level, while ConnectorCare eligibility extends to 300 percent of the poverty level; everyone who gets CSR benefits is also in the ConnectorCare program).

So those three Massachusetts exchange insurers did not have to add the cost of CSR to their premiums for 2018, since they don’t provide CSR benefits to their enrollees. Their average rate increases remained unchanged when the cost of CSR was added to 2018 premiums in mid-October:

  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts (BCBSMA): 5.2 percent increase
  • Harvard Pilgrim Health Care (HPHC): 7 percent increase
  • Tufts Health Plan – Premier: 5 percent increase (also known as Tufts HMO)

So people who qualify for premium subsidies are largely protected from the added cost of CSR, since the subsidies have become much larger in order to cover that cost. And when the subsidy is applied to a non-silver plan, it goes even further than it would have in prior years. People who don’t qualify for a premium subsidy are not insulated from the regular rate increases, since those apply to all plans. But they can avoid paying the cost of CSR by picking a non-silver plan or a silver plan from one of the insurers that doesn’t add the cost of CSR to premiums.

Premium changes in previous years

Here’s a look at how premiums have changed for Massachusetts Health Connector plans over the years:

2015: Average increase of 1.6 percent for 2015.

2016: Average increase of 6.3 percent. This was well under the 12 to 13 percent nationwide average for 2016 (the nationwide average applies to the individual market along; Massachusetts and Vermont are the only two states where the individual and small group risk pools have been merged. DC also has a modified merged risk pool).

2017: Average increase of 19 percent. Neighborhood Health Plans, which insured one out of four Connector enrollees and offers a generous network of providers in Boston, raised its rates by an average of 21 percent for 2017 (before any subsidies are applied). But for another quarter of the people enrolled in Connector plans, rates for 2017 decreased or remained unchanged, thanks to minimal rate changes for some of the other carriers.

The rate increases for 2017 were highest for Harvard Pilgrim, Health New England, and Neighborhood Health Plan. Those three carriers had 46 percent of the 2016 exchange market share as of early November 2016.

For people with income above 300 percent of the poverty level (who don’t qualify for ConnectorCare subsidies), average premiums increased by 19 percent, which was lower than the national average. That assumed, however, that people kept their existing plans in 2017. In reality, there was a much higher rate of plan switching during the 2017 open enrollment period: 65,000 Massachusetts Health Connector enrollees picked new plans for 2017, which was roughly four times the percentage of plan changes that the exchange had seen in prior years.

But ConnectorCare subsidies were also smaller in 2017, and people who are enrolled in the highest-cost plans were no longer receiving the level of ConnectorCare subsidies they received in the past. In a September Health Connector board meeting, this issue was explained in more detail: essentially, the larger spread of premiums for 2017 meant that the cost of “smoothing” premiums would have been excessive, and would “reward behavior in the market that is not competitive.”

In 2016, the cost of premium smoothing was $20 million. But with the large rate increases for some carriers in 2017, the cost of smoothing was going to run to $51 million if it was done without any changes from 2016. Adding to the problem is the fact that available funding for 2017 was much lower than it was in 2016, and only $4.2 million is available.

The result of all this was that the additional subsidies for ConnectorCare plans was concentrated on lower-cost plans for 2017. ConnectorCare premiums are being “smoothed” (ie, eliminated) for plans that are within $35/month of the lowest-cost plan, but not beyond that.

So while people on the lower end of the income scale were able to pick any ConnectorCare plan in 2016 without paying a premium, they had to pay a premium in 2017 if they selected one of the more expensive plans (premiums for people in ConnectorCare Plan Type 1—for the lowest-income enrollees—varied from $0 to $165/month in 2017, depending on the plan they select).

Partnering with DC Health Link for SHOP exchange platform that debuted in August 2017

On February 23, 2017, DC Health Link, the state-run exchange in the District of Columbia, announced that they would be partnering with Massachusetts Health Connector, so that small businesses in Massachusetts would be able to use DC Health Link’s SHOP (small business exchange) enrollment platform.

The new website, which uses a separate branch of DC Health Link’s SHOP exchange platform, launched in August 2017, with plans available from Boston Medical Center Health Plan, Fallon Health, and Health New England. Additional insurers have since been added to the platform: As of 2019, Massachusetts Health Connector’s SHOP exchange offers small business plans from BCBSMA, Fallon Health, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Health New England, Tufts, and UnitedHealthcare. There are also small group dental plans available from Altus Dental and Delta Dental.

The Massachusetts Health Connector’s small business exchange offers plans to employers with up to 50 employees. The ACA had called for the definition of “small group” to expand to include groups with up to 100 employees starting in 2016, and Massachusetts had issued guidance allowing groups with 51 – 100 employees to early-renew their plans at the end of 2015 to avoid rate hikes in 2016 under the new regulations.

But in October 2015, President Obama signed HR1624 (the PACE Act) into law, repealing the ACA’s small group definition change, but leaving the final decision up to each state. Massachusetts is keeping their small group definition at 50 or fewer employees, and the day after HR1624 was enacted, the state rescinded their guidance that allowed mid-size groups to early renew.

In March 2018, Massachusetts Health Connector began a partnership with the New England Business Association, to make health coverage more accessible to small businesses.

History of Massachusetts Health Connector

Massachusetts enacted comprehensive health reform in 2006 that created the Massachusetts Health Connector. Massachusetts’ reforms served as the model for the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA), which was signed into law in 2010. As a result of Massachusetts’ early health care reform efforts, the state’s uninsured rate had dropped from 10.9 percent in 2006 to 6.3 percent in 2010—in contrast to the overall uninsured rate in the US, which climbed during that time period.

While the ACA health insurance marketplaces were modeled on the Massachusetts exchange, the technical upgrades that were needed to make Health Connector ACA-compliant were not implemented smoothly or on time.

The Health Connector performed very poorly during the first ACA open enrollment period. Health Connector hired a consultant, MITRE Corporation, to assess its website problems. MITRE determined that CGI—the lead IT vendor—lacked the necessary expertise, managed the project poorly, lost data, and failed to adequately test the revamped website prior to its launch. MITRE also said the roles and decision-making authority of the three state entities involved in the project (Massachusetts Health Connector, MassHealth, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School) were unclear.

Despite the issues with CGI, state officials deemed it too disruptive to cut ties with the vendor during the 2014 open enrollment. In January 2014, Massachusetts brought on Optum, a subsidiary of United HealthGroup, to work through some of the immediate problems with the Health Connector. When 2014 open enrollment ended, Health Connector officials moved to terminate the CGI contract.

The Health Connector struggled with technological problems during 2014 open enrollment, and officials spent the spring and summer evaluating whether to fix the state’s system or transition to HealthCare.gov.

Massachusetts officials pursued a “dual track” solution to make the Health Connector work better for the 2015 open enrollment period. One track evaluated replacing existing Health Connector software with hCentive, an off-the-shelf software solution that was successfully used by the Colorado, Kentucky, and New York exchanges. The second track considered was transitioning to the federal exchange, HealthCare.gov, for enrollment.

In July 2014, hCentive successfully demonstrated that it could connect to the federal data hub to verify applicants’ identifies and income levels. After additional testing in August, Massachusetts and CMS determined that continuing as a state-run exchange using the hCentive platform was the right approach for the state.

The hCentive system has been customized for the Massachusetts insurance marketplace. It supports State Wrap, which provides additional state-sponsored premium assistance (ConnectorCare), as well as a “single door” enrollment for either private health insurance or MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program. The hCentive system also includes functionality to better handle transactions between insurance companies and consumers and “back office” functions for insurers.

State officials put the cost of rebuilding the Health Connector at $254 million, with the state paying $30 million and the federal government paying the balance (by October 2015, the total had reached $285 million). In addition, the state has paid $259 million in medical claims for people who were temporarily enrolled in MassHealth due to the exchange’s inability to accurately determine eligibility for financial assistance in 2014.

Health Connector performance was greatly improved in 2015. However, officials acknowledged many additional fixes were still needed, and consumers continued to struggle with the online payment system and long waits for customer assistance. Gov. Charlie Baker was sworn into office in January 2015, and he moved quickly to bring changes to the Health Connector leadership ranks. Baker is a Republican, and was formerly the CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare. During Baker’s campaign for governor, he was critical of the Connector’s botched roll-out, and felt that Massachusetts should have more waivers from the ACA, given that the state had already implemented successful healthcare reform.

Massachusetts Health Connector’s technical problems had mostly been addressed by the start of the third open enrollment period, and the 2016 open enrollment period was dramatically more successful than the previous two. Renewal for enrollees who didn’t make changes to their plan was much faster than it was for 2015, and the exchange also added online accessibility for payment and change of circumstances requests—those features were previously only available by calling the help center. Call center hours were extended for open enrollment, and staffing was increased to more than 300 call center representatives.

For the third open enrollment period, the Connector’s goal was to keep hold times to less than two and a half minutes for at least 70 percent of their calls. Clearly, they succeed on that front: The average call to the Connector call center was answered in just 8 seconds during November 2015, and peaked at about two and a half minutes in January 2016—a dramatic improvement over the 28 minute hold time that callers experienced in February 2015, towards the end of the second open enrollment period.

The exchange also added four new walk-in centers (Brockton, Fall River, Lowell, and Springfield) to handle open enrollment volume, in addition to the existing walk-in locations in Worcester and Boston.

Massachusetts Health Connector also partnered with Consumers’ Checkbook to create a provider search tool that enrollees could use without leaving the Connector website. Prior to the 2016 open enrollment period, enrollees had to leave the Connector site and use the network search tools provided by each insurer—a cumbersome process at best—to make sure their doctors were in the network of the plans they were considering.

Massachusetts health insurance exchange links

Massachusetts Health Connector
877-MA-ENROLL (877-623-6765)

State Exchange Profile: Massachusetts
The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation overview of Massachusetts’ progress toward creating a state health insurance exchange.

Health Care for All – Massachusetts Consumer Assistance Program
Assists people insured by private health plans, Medicaid, or other plans in resolving problems pertaining to their health coverage; assists uninsured residents with access to care.(800) 272-4232

Office of Patient Protection, Department of Public Health
800-436-7757 (toll-free nationwide)
Serves residents and other consumers who receive health coverage from a Massachusetts carrier, insurer, or HMO.


Louise Norris is an individual health insurance broker who has been writing about health insurance and health reform since 2006. She has written dozens of opinions and educational pieces about the Affordable Care Act for healthinsurance.org. Her state health exchange updates are regularly cited by media who cover health reform and by other health insurance experts.