O'Malley says major health exchange problems are fixed

Democrats sharpen criticism of Maryland health exchange as questions linger about whether it will work

  • Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks during a news conference about Maryland's health care exchange Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, in Annapolis.
Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks during a news conference… (Steve Ruark / For The Baltimore…)
December 15, 2013|By Erin Cox, John Fritze and Andrea K. Walker, The Baltimore Sun

The state has resolved the nine "major issues" preventing its glitch-ridden health exchange from working, officials said Saturday, a milestone Gov. Martin O'Malley has framed as key to boosting the low enrollment in insurance plans offered under the Affordable Care Act.

While officials cautioned that more repairs are necessary beyond those nine problems, O'Malley said through a spokeswoman that the site "is now functional for most citizens." Praised as a national model during its development, the $107 million online marketplace has been troubled by screen freezes and crashes in the two months since its launch.

The Saturday announcement comes at a critical time for O'Malley, who has been facing increasing criticism over the rollout of Obamacare in Maryland — recently from some in his own party. And though the site has been declared functional, it remains to be seen whether users will feel the same way.

"Color me skeptical," said Del. Justin Ready, a Republican from Carroll County, said. "I've been getting lots of complaints from people."

O'Malley's office did not go into detail about the technical obstacles that remain for the site, but said that the state would step up its marketing efforts to get more users on board before the end of March, when Americans without health insurance face a tax penalty.

The state exchange, with its feuding contractors and prolonged technical problems, could become a political liability if still does not work, political observers said. For most top Maryland Democrats, widespread praise of the effort shifted into silence and quiet disappointment as the exchange struggled after its launch.

"If this continues, at some point for their own political survival, they will have to speak out against it," said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College.

Some in the party have begun sharpening criticism of the troubled online marketplace. On Friday, two Maryland congressmen urged the state to consider any means necessary to speed progress, including using the federal exchange to reach an estimated 800,000 uninsured residents.

O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who have staked their reputations on the ability to make the exchange work, might have the most to lose, Eberly said.

Brown has promised a state assessment of what went wrong, but said his focus now is on continued improvement.

"Experts have been working around the clock to address the technical problems and, while we still have a lot of work left to do, more Marylanders are getting quality and affordable care through the exchange," Brown said in a statement Saturday night.

For the first time last week, some Democrats began publicly offering suggestions on how the state should address the problem.

Rep. John Delaney of Montgomery County suggested Friday that the state scrap its system and use the federal government's website, which also had problems for months but is now running smoothly for most people.

"We can have the best policy ideas in the world, but if no one thinks we can execute, no one will trust us to do them," Delaney said, adding that he's not sure state exchange officials are making tangible progress. "I think the Maryland exchange is an example of Democrats not managing well."

Asked about Delaney's comments, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said that using the federal exchange should be considered if it is a more viable option.

He is among the congressmen on regular phone briefings from O'Malley about the exchange. Minutes after concluding a Thursday call with Maryland's health secretary, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, Cummings said the state needs to show more progress.

"We need to resolve this by any means necessary, as fast as possible, period," Cummings said. "I think they've been doing everything that they can, but I think it's now an appropriate time to even think outside the box — whatever that means."

The federal government has started a probe into what went wrong with its exchange, and Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County suggested the inquiry could expand into the failure of state systems built with federal grants.

"Taxpayers in Maryland deserve an answer as to how you could spend that much money and not have a product that solves the problem," he said.

Leaders in the Maryland State House and the governor expect hearings when the General Assembly convenes next month.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch predicted there would be plenty of inquires into the problems with the Maryland exchange because it's "incumbent on us to make sure it works for everybody."

Maryland was among 16 states and the District of Columbia that created their own exchanges rather than use the federal version.

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