HARTFORD — Less than three months before open enrollment, the Obama administration is plucking the head of Connecticut's health insurance exchange to be CEO of the much-maligned website HealthCare.gov.
Kevin J. Counihan, 59, will be in a politically charged environment running the web portal for health insurance used by millions of Americans in 36 states that haven't designed their own online marketplaces.
In Connecticut, Counihan led an organization credited with creative marketing and outreach, dispatching workers to hand out branded bottles of suntan lotion at beaches and health-exchange brochures to 20-somethings at rock concerts. It opened storefronts in cities around the state to reach potential customers where they lived.
The state exchange, Access Health CT, had a relatively smooth enrollment period from October through March, and more than doubled its goal of 100,000 people signing up for coverage in the first year.
Access Health CT has been hailed as a model among state health exchanges and it has been featured as a success story by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy research group.
The Connecticut exchange wasn't without its own troubles. Connecticut's exchange had technical problems in the beginning, and it had to post warnings about misinformation on the website. Earlier this summer, there was a report of contracted call-center worker who left a backpack with birth dates and Social Security numbers of Access Health CT customers outside a deli in downtown Hartford. Also this summer, more than 5,700 received incorrect tax credits, or subsidies.
Counihan is a seasoned executive with more than three decades of experience in health insurance and health care. During a midday media conference Tuesday, Counihan emphasized simplicity as a key to the success of Connecticut's health insurance exchange.
"I think this idea about trying to keep things as efficient and cheap as possible, and simple as possible, has a lot of value whether it's to a state or to the federal government," he said. "And, as I said, I just believe that this is about simplicity and ease in doing everything that either the states or the feds can do to make a complex purchasing decision easy as possible."
"If there's opportunities within something that a state has, like Connecticut, I think the feds have to look at it," Counihan said.
Counihan is leaving to become CEO of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight. He will manage relationships with state marketplaces in addition to overseeing the federal health-exchange website, HealthCare.gov.
Technical problems with the federal government's website when open enrollment began in October 2013 were widely believed to be the reason Kathleen Sebelius announced in April that she would step down as secretary of Health and Human Services. Regardless of frequent problems with HealthCare.gov and a federal database that corrals information from various agencies, 7.5 million Americans signed up for medical coverage through the federal website and state marketplaces during a six-month enrollment period from October through March.
In a written statement Tuesday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell said that hiring Counihan is part of her commitment to recruit the best talent available.
"We are committed to instilling ongoing accountability for reaching milestones, measuring results and ensuring a successful open enrollment period. I'm particularly pleased to welcome Kevin Counihan to the new Marketplace CEO role," she said. "He brings additional operational and technological expertise to the position and will be a clear, single point of contact for streamlined decision-making."
His last day at Connecticut's exchange will be Sept. 5. An interim director will be announced within a few days, state officials said.
At a midday press conference, Counihan said that he was recruited for the position and that "I did not seek the job out."
He started working at Access Health CT on July 3, 2012, after a national search by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy turned up 75 candidates. Counihan was chosen for his 30 years' experience in health care and insurance. Before coming to Connecticut, he had been president of Choice Administrators Exchange Solutions in Orange, Calif., which helps states create health exchanges mandated by Obamacare.
He was hired at a salary of $225,000, funded by federal grants. He now makes $233,000.
From 2006 to 2011, Counihan was chief marketing officer for Massachusetts' health exchange, a precursor to the Obamacare exchange. He was a sales and marketing executive at Tufts Health Plan of Massachusetts from 1993 to 2005 and, before that, was a regional vice president at Cigna Corp. in Bloomfield.
Connecticut's online marketplace for health insurance has been held up as an example of successful implementation of the complicated federal law while other states and the federal health exchange, HealthCare.gov, struggled with technical problems.
In a six-month enrollment period from October through March, Connecticut more than doubled its initial forecast of 100,000 people signed up for medical coverage. The final tally announced April 17 was 208,301 residents enrolled in health plans, of which 62 percent qualified for government-funded Medicaid and 38 percent were in private insurance plans. Among those who bought private plans, 78 percent received a federal tax credit, or subsidy, to offset the price of insurance.
Access Health CT has 70 full-time employees, 10 temporary and durational employees, and two part-timers.
In April, the board overseeing Maryland's health exchange scrapped its dysfunctional website and adopted software developed by Deloitte Consulting for the more successful health exchange in Connecticut.
Earlier this month, Access Health CT noted that it was featured in a Kaiser Family Foundation report as one of four successful state health exchanges as measured by marketing, branding, outreach, enrollment initiatives, consumer assistance and operations.
However, Connecticut's exchange has had its own difficulties:
In July, Access Health CT said 5,784 customers were assigned an incorrect tax credit — 80 percent due to the exchange's faulty computer system and 20 percent due to user error.
In June, an employee of the Access Health CT call-center vendor, Maximus, left a backpack outside a downtown deli. The backpack had a notepad with names, birthdays and Social Security numbers of Access Health CT customers. There was information on more than 400 customers. The employee was placed on leave.
When enrollment began in October 2013, Access Health CT's website had incorrect information about deductibles and co-insurance, but not about plan prices, affecting all 19 individual health plans from the three insurance companies that offered those plans through the exchange. Access Health CT warned customers of the inaccuracies by posting warnings on the site, and, in some cases, calling customers after they enrolled.
Connecticut's system was also ensnared by complications with the federal database used to verify a person's identity. For example, in January, Access Health CT said about 100 people daily were blocked from signing up for health insurance on the state exchange because the federal database incorrectly identified them as incarcerated. Some of the people incorrectly labeled as prison inmates served time years ago while others had no criminal record at all.