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Critics hammer O'Malley, Brown on web site

Laws and LegislationElectionsCourts and the JudiciaryExecutive BranchAnthony Brown

Critics of Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration expressed dismay Sunday at the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in Maryland, charging that he deliberately underplayed the state's problems in setting up its health care insurance exchange.

Republican gubernatorial candidates and General Assembly leaders said there needs to be a serious inquiry into problems outlined by The Baltimore Sun, including a conflict between the prime contractor building the exchange's website and a key subcontractor.

"We're seeing it was handled very unprofessionally and ineptly and the citizens of Maryland are paying for it," said Sen. Minority Leader David Brinkley of Frederick County. "The legislature as a whole is, I think, interested in dissecting this whole thing."

According to emails obtained by The Sun through open records laws, the conflict between contractors contributed to the flubbed launch of the exchange site on Oct. 1 and subsequent delays in fixing it. The article also noted that administration officials were more aware of the months-long strife — now being played out in federal court — than they had admitted publicly.

GOP leaders, as well as some Democrats, said the contractors' problems in no way relieve O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown — the administration's point man in implementing federal health reforms in Maryland — of responsibility for the botched launch. The website was created to allow the estimated 800,000 uninsured Marylanders shop for health insurance under reforms known as Obamacare. But like the federal site, it ran into problems as soon as it opened.

House Minority Leader Nicholaus Kipke of Anne Arundel County said he believed he had been lied to by people in the governor's office about the extent of the problems. "They kept manipulating the numbers," he said.

Kipke said the governor should have disclosed the severity of the problems as soon as they became apparent and should have taken the site off line until the problems were fixed.

"It would have taken real leadership for the lieutenant governor and the governor to get a real understanding of just how many defects were in this exchange. Realistically speaking it didn't work at all," he said.

Del. Pete Hammen of Baltimore, speaking for the House Democratic leadership, said the immediate priority should be website repairs rather than an investigation. He expects lawmakers to focus on what went wrong during the legislative session that begins in January.

The website's problems, which were followed Friday night by the resignation of the woman who was running the exchange, continued to resonate Sunday in the 2014 gubernatorial race.

Larry Hogan, an all-but-official candidate for the GOP nomination said the state should commission an independent audit into the "incompetence and complete lack of management in the O'Malley-Brown administration." He charged that 73,000 Marylanders had lost insurance even though the state awarded a $71 million contract to develop the exchange.

"We need to get to the bottom of exactly what happened … with the wasting of this $71 million," he said. "What we're getting so far is just a complete whitewash and people trying to walk away from responsibility."

Republican candidate Ron George, a state delegate from Anne Arundel County, said many of the problems with Maryland's exchange were a result of overreach in Obamacare. "You cannot overnight create a make-believe new and different economic system that is intended to fund health care and expect it to work," he said.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, a Democratic candidate who has been pummeling Brown over the exchange's malfunctions, declined to comment on the report that conflict between Noridian Healthcare Solutions and subcontractor EngagePoint Inc. was hampering the rollout.

Brown's other Democratic rival, Del. Heather R. Mizeur of Montgomery County, said, "This isn't about politics or blame, this is about getting health insurance to Marylanders."

Jim Pettit, a spokesman for Republican candidate David R. Craig, said the Harford County executive believes Brown's lack of direct involvement as the two contractors argued was "unacceptable."

"The revelations show that he had his head in the sand and was not involved in the core problems plaguing the exchange," Pettit said.

Brown has said he is actively involved in seeking a solution and will conduct regular briefings on the health exchange starting this week. He indicated that the administration is open to conducting an inquiry — but not right now. He said the immediate focus should be on fixing the website "so we can in the next 100 days or so deliver the best system to perform for the people of Maryland."

O'Malley said in an interview last week that testing during the summer and early fall led state officials to believe they would have far fewer problems when the site went online.

"A longer testing period might have allowed us to prioritize and address more of these problems before the launch date," he said. "Time and ultimate success will tell whether the decision to purchase off-the-shelf software and employ multiple contractor entities were good or bad decisions."

O'Malley said the exchange has been functioning better in recent days, and called for the major problems to be fixed by mid-December. He set that deadline just a day after the state health secretary told legislators he was unsure when the website would be free of glitches.

O'Malley said further improvements are a top priority of state information technology chief Isabel Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald recently took over key operational duties from Rebecca Pearce, the state agency official who had overseen the creation of the exchange. Pearce resigned after coming under criticism for taking a week's vacation in the Cayman Islands around Thanksgiving, while the state was still wrestling with website problems; Carolyn Quattrocki was named as an interim replacement.

O'Malley's chief of staff, John Griffin, said Sunday that the governor decided the best way for contractors to deal with the website's problems was to leave it up and fix them as they went along. He noted that the state has taken the site off line at night and on weekends to make improvements.

Jared Smith, a spokesman for Brown, said the lieutenant governor's reference to 100 days does not represent a change to the administration's goal of making improvements by mid-December. Brown was referring to the end of the open enrollment process March 31.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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