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A peek into Md. health exchange's failed launch [Editorial]

Laws and LegislationAccounting and AuditingExecutive BranchDouglas F. GanslerRepublican Party

At first, leaders of the General Assembly were promising as many hearings as it would take to get to the bottom of the failure of Maryland's health care exchange website. Then they decided to put off questions about what went wrong until an audit that wouldn't be completed until after this summer's gubernatorial primary, and instead to task a special committee with monitoring progress going forward. Now they're shifting gears again. Two committee chairmen are asking legislative auditors to review documents detailing the lead-up to the website's botched October launch and to report back before the General Assembly adjourns in April. It's a step in the right direction but may still fall short of producing the answers voters deserve before they go to the polls in June.

On Friday, Del. Peter A. Hammen, chairman of the Health and Government Operations Committee, and Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, chairman of the Finance Committee, sent a letter to House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to inform them of their plans. The two, who chair a joint committee overseeing fixes to the exchange, want auditors to "identify and analyze the factors that caused or contributed to the troubled launch of the Maryland Health Connection" to make sure those problems don't recur before the start of the next open enrollment period in November. Auditors are to provide some documents to the joint oversight committee by Friday and to file a report by March 31.

Marylanders have a general interest in making sure the website works by November, of course, but they have a more specific reason to delve quickly into the details of what contributed to last year's problems because Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, a leading candidate for governor, was designated as the O'Malley administration's point-person on implementing health care reform in Maryland. He's come under withering assault from his rivals, particularly from Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, for the website's problems. If voters are to make an informed decision about Mr. Brown's potential to lead the state, they need to know as much as possible before the June primary about what role, exactly, he played in the lead-up to the website's launch.

With that in mind, the questions Messrs. Hammen and Middleton are asking auditors to answer are generally the right ones. They want to know about procurement processes used in the selection of software and vendors; project planning and oversight, including the "transparency and accountability of the exchange in decision making"; the fiscal efficiency of the project; the decision making regarding the project's overall design and scope; the testing of the website; and the training of health care "navigators," call center employees and others. In fact, much of the language in the Hammen-Middleton letter echoes a bill sponsored by House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga and virtually every other Republican in that chamber.

However, there is a key difference between the chairmen's effort and the one backed by the GOP. Delegate Szeliga's bill calls for an investigative committee with the power to subpoena witnesses and compel the production of documents. Messrs. Hammen and Middleton are calling on auditors to conduct their investigation by obtaining "independent verification and validation reports" produced by the Maine-based consultant the state hired to oversee the exchange's creation and any relevant documents that have been released through Public Information Act requests.

There is value in what the lawmakers are asking the auditors to do. The Washington Post obtained at least some of the reports from the consultant, BerryDunn, and they provided details of what was going on behind the scenes before the launch. Likewise, The Sun obtained emails and other documents related to the website's launch through the Public Information Act, which revealed widespread dysfunction.

But all of that left some major holes in the public's understanding of what went wrong and who was responsible. In particular, it's notable that The Sun's public information act request turned up no emails between Mr. Brown and the state workers developing the insurance exchange in the two weeks before and after the launch. Some unspecified number of messages were withheld under an executive privilege exemption. The same exemption was used to avoid disclosure of an unknown number of other emails among high-ranking state officials.

The joint committee Messrs. Middleton and Hammen chair has been valuable in its oversight of efforts to fix the website, and the chairmen's willingness to delve into the lead-up to the launch is welcome. They are asking the right questions, but they aren't giving the auditors all the tools they need to provide the public with all the answers it deserves.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Laws and LegislationAccounting and AuditingExecutive BranchDouglas F. GanslerRepublican Party
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