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Delaney, Mizeur call for analysis of ditching state health site

A Maryland congressman and a candidate for governor — both Democrats —called on Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration Monday to publicly disclose the feasibility of abandoning the state's troubled health insurance exchange in favor of the better-performing federally run website.

In a letter to state health officials, Rep. John Delaney noted that the federal site, despite its own problems, is signing up new patients for coverage faster than the Maryland Health Connection. Delaney asked health officials to publicly weigh the pros and cons of switching systems.

The Potomac lawmaker first floated the idea of moving to the federal exchange last month. O'Malley has said he is considering the move at least temporarily as the state wrestles with glitches that have made it difficult for people to obtain coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

"We have fallen quite far behind the national average and we're running out of time," Delaney wrote in the letter Monday. "With less than three months remaining in the open enrollment period, each day is critical."

Delaney's statement on the website opened a rare rift among Democratic officeholders in an election year. And it came on the same day that two candidates for governor — one Democrat and one Republican — lobbed new questions at the administration and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who is running for governor and has been the state's point person on implementing Obamacare.

"Rather than becoming a shining example of how a good a state government could be at implementing this new, major reform, Maryland's performance has one of the worst in the nation," said Del. Heather R. Mizeur of Montgomery County, who is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Mizeur laid out a plan Monday that included "a full, thorough and transparent accounting" of how much longer it will take to fix the site and an analysis of switching to the federal system.

She said making the switch might be more disruptive than it's worth, unless the state is months away from fixing its system.

State officials have made progress fixing the exchange, and O'Malley has personally updated elected leaders in Washington and Annapolis on the effort. A spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said Monday that the administration is working to address the site's problems.

"As we continue those efforts to fix the remaining technical problems, we are looking at all available options to ensure that we can serve the greatest number of people possible as quickly as possible," spokeswoman Dori Henry said in a statement.

That includes "assessing the feasibility of temporarily using some parts of the federal site," she said.

Users of both the state and federal health exchanges ran into technical problems starting in October while trying to enroll for new coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act. But federal officials appear to be moving more quickly on fixing those problems.

Some 18,000 Maryland residents have used the state's site to secure private coverage under the act — about 12 percent of the state's enrollment goal. Nationwide, the Obama administration has enrolled about 28 percent of its goal in states that are relying on the federal site.

The state's initial goal — to cover about 20 percent of its uninsured population with private insurance — was slightly more ambitious than the target set nationwide.

Delaney's public position on the exchange has raised eyebrows in a state where Democrats tend to present a united message. The first-term lawmaker, who was not endorsed by O'Malley or the state party apparatus in his 2012 primary, said he does not intend to endorse any candidate in the gubernatorial election.

Brown's leading Democratic challenger, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, has also criticized the administration on the rollout.

Switching to the federal exchange could be a blow to the O'Malley administration, which made Maryland one of the first states in the nation to embrace Obamacare and to begin work on creating its exchange.

Harford County Executive David R. Craig, one of the leading GOP candidates for governor, raised separate criticism of the site Monday. He suggested the state stop spending money on promoting the exchange and instead allow people to sign up directly with private insurance carriers.

"Up to $150 million is going towards promoting a failing exchange, and throwing good money after bad needs to end now," Craig said in a statement.

State officials note that people are doing more than purchasing insurance coverage on the exchange. Many are also applying for a federal subsidy to offset the cost of the coverage. That requires using the website, which can verify tax records and other information that is inaccessible to private insurers.

"Individuals who do not qualify for a tax credit can go directly to a carrier," Henry said, "and we have encouraged those individuals to do so."

Baltimore Sun reporter Andrea K. Walker contributed to this article.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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