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State officials welcome federal review of health site

Elected officials from both parties said Monday they welcome a pending federal review of Maryland's troubled health insurance exchange, even as they used the latest development to take swipes at one another ahead of this year's gubernatorial election.

The inspector general for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will examine how millions of dollars of federal money was spent on the site, according to the Republican lawmaker who requested it. The federal audit would take place simultaneously with state-led reviews of the exchange.

Opponents of Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration used the revelation of the review to renew criticism of the state's handling of the glitch-prone exchange, while top Democrats pointed out the probe had been requested by the state's leading critic of the Affordable Care Act, Republican Rep. Andy Harris.

"We welcome this review, but it's no mystery what happened: The vendors we hired failed to deliver us the product they promised," the governor's office said in a statement. "Harris, like all congressional Republicans, is opposed to the Affordable Care Act — they've voted 50 times to repeal it."

Harris, a Baltimore County lawmaker and the state's only Republican in Congress, sent a letter to the inspector general last month requesting the review. He told The Baltimore Sun he received confirmation from the inspector general's office that auditors intended to look into the matter.

The scope of that review — and whether auditors are considering several states or just Maryland — is not yet clear. The inspector general's office has declined to comment.

"This investigation, which is supported by Democrats and Republicans in Maryland, is about figuring out why, unlike successful exchanges in places like Connecticut, leaders in Maryland were unable to ... create a functional exchange," Harris, who sits on the House Appropriations subcommittee with oversight of the federal health department, said in a statement.

A significant amount of public funding has been used to develop and repair Maryland's health exchange. Maryland expects to spend $261 million on the exchange by the end of 2015 — more than 80 percent of it federal money.

The Maryland Health Connection — intended to help residents sign up for coverage under the new federal law — crashed when it launched Oct. 1. State officials attributed the problem to technical glitches, but emails and other documents showed that the development of the site had been troubled for months by technical problems and disputes between the main contractor and a key subcontractor.

High-ranking state officials have said they were unaware of the extent of the problems.

Last month, state officials terminated the contract with the main contractor hired to build the website, Noridian Healthcare Solutions. Separately, that company has been feuding in court with EngagePoint, its main subcontractor. Neither company could be reached to comment.

The exchange has become a major issue in this year's General Assembly session as well as in the race for governor. Several rivals of Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, the leading Democratic candidate in the race, embraced the idea of a federal review. Brown was the state's point person on the health law's implementation.

"Marylanders deserve answers about how their tax dollars were spent and about why — more than five months after the failed rollout — Lt. Gov. Brown still hasn't answered important questions," state Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, one of Brown's opponents for the Democratic nomination, said in a statement.

Republicans also used news of the review to attack Brown. Larry Hogan, a GOP candidate for governor and former aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said voters deserve a thorough review of why the state is "spending hundreds of millions of our hard-earned tax dollars on a broken website."

Politically, it's not clear whether the issue has had much of an influence on the race in a state that widely supports the health care law. A Baltimore Sun poll last month found that 63 percent of respondents said the handling of the exchange would not influence whether they voted for Brown.

"It's disappointing but not surprising that Doug Gansler continues to parrot conservative republican Congressman Andy Harris and his attacks on Obamacare," said Brown campaign manager Justin Schall. Brown, he said, "welcomes a full review so that we can learn from these challenges."

State lawmakers have ordered a separate legislative review of documents to better understand what was happening behind the scenes in the weeks and months before the site launched.

As part of that effort, a joint oversight committee has asked legislative auditors to do a "performance review" of the exchange, an inquiry that would not begin until this summer. Auditors are also engaged in a more narrow inquiry into the finances of the exchange.

Maryland was one of 14 states that chose to build its own health insurance exchange rather than rely on a web portal created by the federal government. Most of those states had their sites in shape by January, though Oregon, Minnesota and Massachusetts continue to experience problems.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun