The state is stepping in to create a single website to boost Obama­care enrollment after a bungled first attempt left thousands of applicants without health insurance.

The state Office of Information Management and Technology told lawmakers at a Monday, July 21, briefing that it plans to create a single portal at Hawaii.gov that will help direct consumers to either Medicaid, the government insurance program for low-income residents, or the Hawaii Health Connector, the troubled online exchange created by President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

The state-run site will be used to attract roughly 75,000 currently uninsured Hawaii residents — or 5.5 percent of the population — during the Connector’s next enrollment period from Nov. 15 to Feb. 15, said Keone Kali, CIO of the state. Officials estimated that there were 100,000 uninsured Hawaii residents prior to the start of Obama­care this year.

Fewer than 8,000 residents successfully enrolled in the exchange as of the March deadline — among the lowest in the nation.

A major part of the problem was consumers applying for subsidies to lower insurance costs via the Connector were first directed to the Department of Human Services’ (DHS) $100 million Kolea system to determine whether they were eligible for Medicaid.

That caused a bottleneck of 11,000 unprocessed Connector applications because the Connector and Kolea systems are incompatible.

“If there was backlog, it was most likely due to the time it took to process Medicaid denials,” Kali said.

The state technology office is proposing to build an integrated system that will service both the exchange and DHS’ Kolea system, Kali said.

Before that system is built, the state wants to direct those looking for insurance to Hawaii.gov.

“We’re trying to attract more people,” Kali said. “Our Hawaii.gov portal experiences 2.9 million unique visitors (per year), 10 times the amount of traffic from either the Connector or Kolea. We’d like to cast a wider net.”

Kali said there would be minimal cost for adding a health insurance link to the Hawaii.gov website.

“I’m really skeptical any of this you’re talking about is really going to happen, but it’s heartening to hear you say it’s going to be a low-cost portal,” said House Health Committee Chairwoman Della Au Belatti, D, Moiliili-Makiki-Tantalus.

Tom Matsuda, the Connector’s interim executive director, said the Connector and Medicaid’s combined sign-ups totaled 43,746 through mid-July. He said the Connector is supporting the state’s plan to use the Hawaii.gov website to drive traffic to ACA and Medicaid programs.

Meanwhile the Connector is facing a budget crunch. It received $204.3 million in federal funds to begin operations, but that money is set to expire at the end of this year. Matsuda said the Connector is still “figuring out how to reduce operating expenses” after the Legislature funded just one-third — $1.5 million — of its $4.7 million request to operate in the first half of next year.

“There’s a number of things we’re exploring now to see how we can reduce expenses,” he said. “Our perspective is we have to make it work. We have to figure out how to maximize the resources we do have available to fulfill our requirements under the ACA.”

The federal government didn’t grant the Connector an extension to spend what is remaining of the federal dollars beyond this year, and its main source of revenue, outside of the money from the Legislature, is a 2 percent fee on health insurance plans sold on the exchange.

Matsuda said there may be a way to extend the federal grant. The federal government will allow what is considered to be funds for development of the exchange to be used in 2015. Grant money for ongoing maintenance and operations can’t be used beyond this year.

“Through the budgeting process we can try to maximize our ability to use development funds, anything related to the establishment of the exchange,” he said.

In addition, the Connector’s board of directors has begun the search for a permanent executive director, Matsuda said. The application period closes at the end of the month, and a new head is expected to be selected around October.

©2014 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser