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Brown takes some responsibility for health site woes

Amid continued criticism from a political rival, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown took some responsibility Tuesday for the dismal performance of Maryland's online health insurance exchange.

"Everyone that was involved in starting up the exchange is responsible and that includes me," Brown told reporters after touring a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Silver Spring for a campaign event. He pledged to make himself available to the news media for regular updates on progress implementing federal health reform in the state.

The comments place Obamacare in the forefront of the race for governor, coming after Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler issued a statement Thursday accusing Brown of "ducking responsibility" for the problems that have plagued the state's health insurance website. Gansler, Brown and Del. Heather Mizeur are competing in the Democratic primary for governor June 24.

Gansler and Republican gubernatorial candidate David Craig later faulted Brown for not having addressed problems with the insurance exchange website sooner. Gov. Martin O'Malley tasked Brown in 2010 with overseeing the state's implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

The website for the Maryland Health Connection, the state's insurance exchange, has seen glitches similar to the highly publicized failings of the federal government's HealthCare.gov. When the Maryland site launched in October, visitors had trouble logging on and shopping for insurance because of overloaded servers.

About 3,000 people had signed up for health insurance plans through the Maryland site as of last week, with a new report on enrollment due out Friday. The state aims to enroll 147,000 more people by March 31, the date by which Americans must be insured or pay a penalty.

As members of Congress have criticized and blamed President Barack Obama and U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for the federal exchange's problems, Brown's rivals have called on him to answer for Maryland's glitches.

Brown said Thursday that he will begin providing regular updates next week on progress toward fixing the state website. Once the issues have been resolved, he said, an analysis should be done on what went wrong.

"Right now, everyone has to focus all of their attention and effort on making sure that the exchange website is fully operational," said Jared Smith, the lieutenant governor's spokesman.

Rivals questioned why Brown hadn't addressed the concerns sooner.

"All we've been trying to say is, the people deserve an answer," said Robert Wheelock, a spokesman for the Gansler campaign. "If this is how you can run something, then we think we can do it better."

The Brown campaign countered that Gansler "should spend less time trying to score cheap political points and more time trying to help fix the problem for the people of Maryland."

Craig, the Harford County executive, said Marylanders are counting on Brown to "provide people whose health care options are being upended with some real facts. But so far all we are seeing are backward-looking vague promises of some ill-defined inquiry that does absolutely nothing to help people now."

Mizeur said the focus should be on the insurance exchange.

"This isn't about politics or blame, this is about getting health insurance to Marylanders," Mizeur said in a statement. "I'm focused on talking to women and moms of Maryland who know that the most important thing is to get their families quality health care."

Political observers said that any impact on the campaign for governor depends on how the health reform effort fares in the months leading up to the Democratic primary and general election.

Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said the Brown campaign might have chosen to become more vocal about the issue because it expects improvements in the exchange website soon.

"By taking responsibility, he has then aligned himself with perhaps a possible positive outcome," Kromer said. "It may be that he foresees these problems going away."

But Todd Eberly, an assistant professor of political science and public policy at St. Mary's College of Maryland, said he sees Brown's comments as "the first evidence of turbulence" in his campaign.

He likened Brown's campaign to that of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a former lieutenant governor who ran for the state's top office in 2002 as a leader on state crime policy. But when reports of abuses in the juvenile justice system surfaced, Townsend's missteps in discussing the crisis helped torpedo her campaign against Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Eberly said.

Eberly said Brown's campaign could open itself to damaging press by pledging regular updates on the exchange website and an inquiry into its failings.

"You don't do that in a campaign unless you have to," Eberly said.

He said Brown's plans to speak with reporters about the issue next week show "the tables have turned," a reference to Gansler's need in recent months to respond to controversies about his directives to state police drivers and his presence at a teen party in Delaware last summer.

sdance@baltsun.com

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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