Senate rejects waiver bid to revive old connector website

BOSTON (SHNS) – While debating a $144 million spending bill Thursday, senators rejected a proposal to demand the Patrick administration request a waiver from the federal government before spending any more money on the state’s failed Obamacare health exchange website.

The spending bill passed on a voice vote, after the one amendment was rejected along party lines, 4 to 30.

Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) proposed that the state seek a waiver from the federal government in order to revive the old health care signup website used by the Health Insurance Connector Authority before the Affordable Care Act went into effect. Tarr argued it was pointless to continue to create a new website to replace one that already worked, and was previously held up as a model across the nation.

The supplemental budget includes language aimed at dedicating $65 million to the Connector Authority and the Commonwealth Care Trust Fund. State officials are disentangling themselves from CGI, the contractor who developed the current, troubled site that frustrated hundreds of residents trying to sign up for insurance.

“The amendment is not intended to reduce the amount for the Health Insurance Connector. But it is intended to call into focus that state agency is engaged in nothing short of a systemic failure,” Tarr said on the Senate floor.

Last Thursday, the Massachusetts Connector Board approved a plan to fix the broken health insurance signup site by hiring a new vendor to build a workable site. The federal health exchange will serve has a backup in case the vendor’s site is not satisfactory. The board plans to have both sites up and running by the fall, in time for the next open enrollment period in November.

The cost estimate for the dual-track plan is $121.1 million. There is uncertainty about how much of that expense will be reimbursed by the federal government. Health insurers have concerns about a dual-track strategy.

Calling the state’s current path “operational multiple choice,” Tarr warned it could leave hundreds of people stranded without health insurance.

“It isn’t just the amount of money. It is also the folks whose lives depend on the insurance. Where they intersect is right here today,” Tarr said.

No senators spoke against the amendment before it failed.

While debating the spending bill, House lawmakers on Wednesday rejected a Republican proposal to hold the $65 million back from the Connector Authority until the Patrick administration provides a full accounting of the costs of the failed rollout of the website. The proposal was defeated, with only a handful of Democrats voting in favor of it.

Before the spending bill passed, Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer said the state has cut in half its reliance on midyear spending.

Brewer said “there are deficiencies from time to time” that still require passing budgets in the middle of a fiscal year, but pointed out the Legislature is on track to authorize less than $500 million in additional spending for fiscal year 2014, less than half the amount in the two previous fiscal years.

Brewer called a $50 million allocation in the bill for state health insurance costs through the Group Insurance Commission “reasonable” on a $2 billion account and reflective of greater utilization of health care services.

Also noting the constitutional right to defense, Brewer said policymakers can’t be certain of caseloads and crime levels as he explained an extra $34 million appropriation for the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

The bill also contained $27.6 million to reimburse local school districts for students who enroll in charter schools.

Several Boston lawmakers, and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, have been pushing to fully fund charter school reimbursement, an issue that contributed to an impasse this spring on legislation that would have lifted the state’s cap on the number of seats at charter schools.

Brewer also called an $11 million appropriation for the Fernald Development Center in Waltham a “bridge to the last phase-out of that institution.”

The spending bill requires final passage in both branches, before it is sent to Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk for his signature.

[Michael Norton contributed reporting]

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