As lawmakers grilled Maryland's health secretary last week on why the state's troubled health exchange was still broken, the official in charge of it was on vacation in the Cayman Islands.
Rebecca Pearce, executive director of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, took a seven-day trip to the Caribbean isle with her family and could not be reached by phone, email or text, officials confirmed Friday.
She was away while lawmakers in Annapolis were pressing for answers on why the $70 million online insurance marketplace was beset by technical glitches two months after it launched and why enrollment continued to lag far behind other states.
Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who led Maryland's program to implement the Affordable Care Act, said in an interview Friday that he did not know Pearce planned to leave town until she was already gone.
Brown called her absence during the week of Thanksgiving a "very" big problem. "We just launched a staff surge and we needed all hands on deck," he said. "Now is not the time to take a vacation."
While Pearce, as the head of a quasi-public institution, was not required to ask permission to take vacation, the lieutenant governor's political rivals in the race to succeed Gov. Martin O'Malley faulted Brown for her absence.
"Lieutenant Governor Brown's poor leadership and mismanagement is deeply troubling to all of us who want to see Obamacare succeed," said Democrat Douglas F. Gansler's campaign spokesman Bob Wheelock.
Republican David Craig questioned the O'Malley-Brown administration's commitment to resolving problems with the exchange.
"One has to wonder how someone so critical to addressing numerous technical problems is free to take exotic vacations at this time," Craig said. "One does not abandon their post during a crisis, and this is unacceptable."
As of Friday, 3,700 people had enrolled in private insurance through the exchange since its rocky rollout on Oct. 1. Maryland was one of 14 states that opted to build their own exchange instead of relying on the federal government, and state officials hoped to enroll 150,000 by the end of March. Gov. Martin O'Malley said last week he wanted the exchange's major problems resolved by mid-December, leaving just one week for residents to sign up for insurance that will take effect Jan. 1.
O'Malley made the announcement while Pearce was in the Caribbean.
"That's pretty bad timing," said Donald Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "If you are responsible for something that is failing, you don't bail out on it until you fix it."
Pearce did not return a call seeking comment on her trip. Joshua Sharfstein, the state health secretary and chair of the board overseeing the exchange, declined to discuss Pearce's vacation and whether he knew about it in advance. Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spokesman Dori Henry said that Pearce's trip Nov. 23 to Nov. 29 included three days state government was closed for the Thanksgiving holiday.
While some of Pearce's role in running the exchange had been handed over to Information Technology Secretary Isabel FitzGerald, she has retained the title of executive director.
"She's basically the CEO of a multi-million corporation," said House Minority Leader Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican. "I suspect in the private sector when there's a lot on the line, that a CEO wouldn't disappear during a major crisis."
Pearce answers to an executive board that was appointed by O'Malley and is chaired by Sharfstein, who told lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee last week he could not predict when the exchange would be free of glitches.
Brown said Friday that while Pearce has not been demoted and he does not have authority to fire her, "if I was a member of the governing board, I'd be questioning her competence and capabilities and whether she ought to lead the project."
Other lawmakers who quizzed Sharfstein on the exchange were frustrated and surprised to learn a key player was not around.
Republican Sen. David Brinkley, the minority leader, said, "As long as this thing is dysfunctional, I think there's a reasonable expectation from the taxpayers that the people overseeing it would be working as hard as possible to fix it."
Sun reporters Meredith Cohn and Andrea K. Walker contributed to this report.