Gansler spot critical of health exchange 'debacle'

A 60-second radio spot by Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler criticizes Maryland's online health insurance exchange — and by extension Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, his rival in the Democratic campaign for governor.

What the ad says: The ad begins with a statement by Bonnita Spikes, a retired nurse from Prince George's County, telling listeners she tried to sign up for coverage through the "ridiculous" state website more than 50 times.

Without using Brown's name, the spot points to the O'Malley-Brown administration's acknowledged failure to ensure a smooth launch of the site, a key to implementing the Affordable Care Act.

It points to press coverage calling the site "a debacle" and asserts that it's a "$261 million" failure. "Doug Gansler just wouldn't put up with this mess," it says. Gansler will "get health reform done." It also says that as attorney general, Gansler stood up to insurance companies.

The facts: Maryland had one of the worst launches of any state that decided to set up its own exchange. Gov. Martin O'Malley has admitted as much, though he has blamed faulty software provided by a contractor.

The $261 million figure used by Gansler is questionable. That number represents all appropriations for the exchange through June 30, 2015, including tens of millions not yet spent. State officials recently put the amount spent so far at $129 million. That does not take into account any money the state might recover through legal action.

The assertion that Gansler wouldn't put up with the problem can't be proved nor disproved. It's not clear what will remain to be done on health reform by the time the next governor takes office.

Reached by phone, Spikes confirmed that she had a dreadful experience with the exchange. She said she was never able to sign up through the site and got insurance only when she went through the county Department of Aging.

Last November, the attorney general issued a warning to health insurance companies against dropping customers without offering them new plans.

Analysis: While the figure Gansler uses may be exaggerated, the ad focuses on a clear vulnerability of Brown and seeks to raise doubts about him without getting too personal. Harsher ads are likely to follow.

Michael Dresser

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