Critics hammer O'Malley, Brown on web site

Lawmakers want probe of health care contractors' strife

December 08, 2013|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Critics of Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration expressed dismay Sunday at the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in Maryland, charging that he deliberately underplayed the state's problems in setting up its health care insurance exchange.

Republican gubernatorial candidates and General Assembly leaders said there needs to be a serious inquiry into problems outlined by The Baltimore Sun, including a conflict between the prime contractor building the exchange's website and a key subcontractor.

"We're seeing it was handled very unprofessionally and ineptly and the citizens of Maryland are paying for it," said Sen. Minority Leader David Brinkley of Frederick County. "The legislature as a whole is, I think, interested in dissecting this whole thing."

According to emails obtained by The Sun through open records laws, the conflict between contractors contributed to the flubbed launch of the exchange site on Oct. 1 and subsequent delays in fixing it. The article also noted that administration officials were more aware of the months-long strife — now being played out in federal court — than they had admitted publicly.

GOP leaders, as well as some Democrats, said the contractors' problems in no way relieve O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown — the administration's point man in implementing federal health reforms in Maryland — of responsibility for the botched launch. The website was created to allow the estimated 800,000 uninsured Marylanders shop for health insurance under reforms known as Obamacare. But like the federal site, it ran into problems as soon as it opened.

House Minority Leader Nicholaus Kipke of Anne Arundel County said he believed he had been lied to by people in the governor's office about the extent of the problems. "They kept manipulating the numbers," he said.

Kipke said the governor should have disclosed the severity of the problems as soon as they became apparent and should have taken the site off line until the problems were fixed.

"It would have taken real leadership for the lieutenant governor and the governor to get a real understanding of just how many defects were in this exchange. Realistically speaking it didn't work at all," he said.

Del. Pete Hammen of Baltimore, speaking for the House Democratic leadership, said the immediate priority should be website repairs rather than an investigation. He expects lawmakers to focus on what went wrong during the legislative session that begins in January.

The website's problems, which were followed Friday night by the resignation of the woman who was running the exchange, continued to resonate Sunday in the 2014 gubernatorial race.

Larry Hogan, an all-but-official candidate for the GOP nomination said the state should commission an independent audit into the "incompetence and complete lack of management in the O'Malley-Brown administration." He charged that 73,000 Marylanders had lost insurance even though the state awarded a $71 million contract to develop the exchange.

"We need to get to the bottom of exactly what happened … with the wasting of this $71 million," he said. "What we're getting so far is just a complete whitewash and people trying to walk away from responsibility."

Republican candidate Ron George, a state delegate from Anne Arundel County, said many of the problems with Maryland's exchange were a result of overreach in Obamacare. "You cannot overnight create a make-believe new and different economic system that is intended to fund health care and expect it to work," he said.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, a Democratic candidate who has been pummeling Brown over the exchange's malfunctions, declined to comment on the report that conflict between Noridian Healthcare Solutions and subcontractor EngagePoint Inc. was hampering the rollout.

Brown's other Democratic rival, Del. Heather R. Mizeur of Montgomery County, said, "This isn't about politics or blame, this is about getting health insurance to Marylanders."

Jim Pettit, a spokesman for Republican candidate David R. Craig, said the Harford County executive believes Brown's lack of direct involvement as the two contractors argued was "unacceptable."

"The revelations show that he had his head in the sand and was not involved in the core problems plaguing the exchange," Pettit said.

Brown has said he is actively involved in seeking a solution and will conduct regular briefings on the health exchange starting this week. He indicated that the administration is open to conducting an inquiry — but not right now. He said the immediate focus should be on fixing the website "so we can in the next 100 days or so deliver the best system to perform for the people of Maryland."

O'Malley said in an interview last week that testing during the summer and early fall led state officials to believe they would have far fewer problems when the site went online.

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