Frustrated consumers could be new voting bloc

Will problems with health exchange stick to Brown in gubernatorial campaign?

  • Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown testifies to the House Health and Government Committee about Maryland's health exchange.
Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown testifies to the House Health and Government… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
January 23, 2014|Dan Rodricks

Lewis Somerville of Parkville is one of the numerous frustrated souls who tried doggedly to secure new health insurance policies through the O'Malley-Brown administration's vaunted-in-theory-but-awful-in-reality online exchange.

To this end, Somerville spent a lot of time on the phone, much of it on hold.

"I have had to listen to over 10 hours of classical music," he says.

It's not that Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" was so bad. It's that Somerville heard it each time he made a phone call about his insurance, and no one, not even Beethoven's grouchy landlord, deserves that.

A variety of musical selections, to provide the sedative people in Somerville's predicament deserved, would have been better — something on the order of Enya or a loop of Lisa Gerrard's "Elysium."

It's the least that could have been done to soothe the many Marylanders who experienced — and continue to experience — signup headaches and worries about coverage.

Somerville says he "fought through" the state's health insurance exchange after its disastrous rollout Oct. 1. It took more than two months, but he was finally able to compare policies. On Dec. 12, he picked the one offered by CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.

The problem was, he had no confirmation of it, no invoice. Somerville and his wife entered the new year without knowing for sure they had insurance.

Finally, after hearing Beethoven's piano sonata arguably more times than the composer did, Somerville got through. On Wednesday, a "live person" at CareFirst verified the new policy, he reports, and it's significantly better than his family's previous one.

So, happy ending here.

But two other people who contacted me, Vicki Rapoport and Walter Regner, are still having problems. Their experiences, explained in phone calls and in long emails, sound maddening in a Kafkaesque way, leaving them in a surreal bureaucratic limbo.

Rapoport thought she had secured insurance on Oct. 22. But, as we know, the state exchange has worked about as well as Baltimore's speed cameras.

"I still have no insurance," Rapoport reported this week, "Nor am I in the Maryland system [or] CareFirst system."

Last I heard from Regner, he was having problems getting into the exchange with the password he created in October. Like Somerville, he had logged several hours on hold, waiting for help, and he had delayed some medical treatment, at least in part because of the uncertainty about insurance.

The frustrated Marylanders are now being offered retroactivity — they can sign up for a state insurance program, effective back to Jan. 1 — but it remains to be seen how many people that will actually help.

Or how many people will even understand what the deal is.

I could go on with stories about health insurance headaches, but you've probably had your fill by now.

If you are insured — that is, not among the thousands of Marylanders who had either no insurance or lousy insurance — you've probably been paying limited attention to this mess.

If you supported the Affordable Care Act, you probably still do; you're just annoyed that blue Maryland, of all places, "squibbed the kickoff," as our oh-so-clever governor put it on national television.

Here's the big political question of the winter and coming spring: Once this all settles down — and by "settles down," I mean thousands more people get insurance and stop telling reporters about their eye-glazing, mind-numbing problems with the exchange — will any of it stick to Anthony Brown?

The lieutenant governor wants to succeed Martin O'Malley in Annapolis, and he leads the small pack of Democratic candidates in campaign contributions. He's picked up endorsements all over the place. He's the favorite in every way, except one: He was the administration's point man on the implementation of Obamacare.

Brown dances around that just a bit, pointing out that he didn't have personal, day-to-day oversight of the rollout of the biggest health care expansion in 50 years, while the people who did never warned him that the website was as unstable as a Soviet-era microwave.

How the I-was-kept-in-the-dark position holds up in a candidate's debate remains to be seen.

Timing is everything in comedy and politics, so there's this, too: Maryland's primary comes breathtakingly soon this year — June, not September — about 10 weeks after the final deadline for health insurance enrollment. The O'Malley-Brown administration is sticking with the state's online exchange, suggesting either informed confidence in the repaired system or a fear of losing even more face by moving to the federal one.

So, things certainly need to go swimmingly from here on out, or Brown could find himself with a real fight on his hands.

That might already be the case.

The people I've heard from — Regner, Rapoport, Somerville, Sharon Filicko (mentioned in my Jan. 16 column) and others — all seem to be engaged and savvy citizens. They appreciated the opportunity in Obamacare, but they were entirely frustrated with its rollout on the O'Malley-Brown watch.

There could be thousands of Marylanders just like them, and I'm sure they'll be voting in the June 24 primary.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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