Hearings on Md. health exchange woes put off

Lawmakers eye giving documents to state auditors

January 31, 2014|By Erin Cox and Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

The head of the state Senate committee that is leading an inquiry into what went wrong with Maryland's health exchange is planning to turn the probe over to state auditors — who would not release a report until summer at the earliest.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, who chairs the Finance Committee, said this week that the panel is unlikely to hold further hearings on the matter this legislative session. His "tentative" plan is to give the mountain of documents that his committee requested from health officials to legislative auditors, who already were scheduled to do a financial review of the exchange this summer.

"It's lots and lots of information," Middleton said. Until open enrollment ends March 31, he said, the time of exchange officials would be better spent repairing the glitch-ridden system, not answering questions from lawmakers.

"I'm comfortable with that because I don't think anyone has uncovered anything that can point to any crime," said Middleton, a Charles County Democrat.

His comments mark a departure from earlier expectations — including those of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller — that legislators would continue hearings until the questions of every lawmaker were answered. Two weeks ago, Miller said, "The public wants answers, and the buck stops here."

Many Marylanders have been thwarted in their efforts to sign up for health insurance by computer glitches and difficulties getting through to a call center. As of Saturday, 26,832 people had enrolled in private health care through the exchange, well off the pace needed to achieve the O'Malley administration's goal of 150,000 by the end of March.

Officials have blamed miscommunication and feuding contractors, among other factors. Maryland's $107 million exchange has had one of the most troubled launches in the country.

Turning the inquiry over to state auditors would likely delay a report until after the Democratic primary for governor June 24. The problems with the exchange have provided ammunition for political opponents of Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who had a leadership role in implementing it and is running to succeed Martin O'Malley as governor.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, Brown's chief rival for the Democratic nomination, said Thursday that the state should allow residents to apply for insurance through the federal exchange, which has had its own troubles but is working better than Maryland's.

O'Malley administration officials rejected that idea when it was suggested recently by Rep. John Delaney, a Maryland Democrat.

Gansler's campaign spokesman, Bob Wheelock, called the plan to stop legislative hearings "disappointing."

"Unfortunately, this decision to protect Lieutenant Governor Brown, holding off for a post-primary investigation, comes at the expense of Marylander taxpayers and consumers," Wheelock said.

The Senate Finance Committee scheduled two hearings in January with the state's health secretary but canceled the second one. Lawmakers said they would wait until they had seen more documents before rescheduling.

Middleton said Wednesday that the panel now is unlikely to hold a second hearing.

Miller said he hadn't discussed the new plan with Middleton, but "the ball is in his court."

"Right now, we'll be focusing on making it work," Miller said. "There needs to be a rest period so the site can be up and running."

The chairman of the House committee with jurisdiction over the health exchange said the panel would work in tandem with the Senate.

"The one thing I really think we need to do is get regular updates on the functionality of the exchange, a complete understanding of what the problems are and what are the fixes to those problems and the time frames," said Del. Peter A. Hammen, the Baltimore Democrat who heads the Health and Government Operations Committee.

Hammen indicated that he agreed with Middleton's decision to let state auditors pursue any further inquiry into the rollout of the exchange.

Miller said he wasn't sure whether there was a need for further legislative hearings, given that lawmakers had an opportunity to ask questions at the hearing two weeks ago.

"I don't know that there's anyone clamoring" for more public inquiries, Miller said. "This is not an issue that anyone is avoiding or trying to sweep under the rug."

The Senate minority leader, David R. Brinkley, said lawmakers in Annapolis have their hands full dealing with the hundreds of bills introduced so far. But the Frederick County Republican vowed to keep pressing for an investigation into what went wrong with the exchange.

Brinkley said the legislature ought to commission an independent probe. He rejected Democratic leaders' arguments that administration officials shouldn't be distracted from fixing the exchange.

"They can do this on two tracks," he said. "There can be an investigation to get to the root of it and at the same time fix the problem."

Knowing more about how the startup got botched might also help with repairing it, he said.

Miller said this week he has no intention of approving an outside investigation.



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