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Mass. launches updated health insurance website

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BOSTON (AP) - Massachusetts has launched an updated version of its Health Connector website as the nation's new health care law takes effect.

State officials said visits to the website were brisk Tuesday and, despite a few glitches, more than 400 people had begun the application process for insurance in the first few hours.

States across the country launched online marketplaces Tuesday as a result of the federal law.

Massachusetts already leads the nation with the highest rate of insured residents - in part because of its health care law that served as a blueprint for the 2010 federal law signed by President Obama. The state law created the nation's first online health care marketplace.

Gov. Deval Patrick said Massachusetts is now hoping to lead the nation in finding ways to drive down the cost of health insurance.

"We've shown the nation the way on universal coverage and now we are cracking the code on costs," Patrick said at a public hearing on the progress of a 2012 state law designed to curb the spiraling costs of health care.

Patrick said the changes have begun to slow the growth of insurance premiums.

Even though the 2006 Massachusetts health care law helped inspire the federal law, the two aren't mirror images, and that means the state is working to reconcile the two.

Putting the federal law into effect in Massachusetts will require some juggling. About 150,000 individuals insured through the state's subsidized Commonwealth Care program will have to re-enroll in updated subsidized health care plans.

Another 100,000 individuals will be shifted from Commonwealth Care into the state's Medicaid program, known as MassHealth, while 45,000 uninsured people will become eligible for MassHealth for the first time.

The federal law could also force some smaller employers and individuals to pay more for coverage while others will save money.

There will also be some adjusting to the so-called "individual mandate" which imposes a tax penalty on those deemed able to afford insurance but refuse.

Massachusetts already has a mandate. State officials say that mandate will remain, but it won't trigger a double penalty when the federal mandate kicks in next year. Instead, the higher penalty will act as a cap.

Officials say the state will reap an additional $400 million in higher federal reimbursement in the fiscal year that begins next July as a result of the federal law.

Massachusetts has taken some steps to help ease the changes.

Lawmakers this summer repealed a mandate requiring employers provide health insurance to workers or pay a penalty - in part because the federal law included its own mandate.

Under the federal law, firms with 50 or more employees face a mandate to offer insurance or risk fines from the government starting in 2015.

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