O'Malley promises on health exchange ring empty

Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks during a news conference about Maryland's health care exchange Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, in Annapolis.

A careful reader pointed out a flaw in my column of Thursday. I noted that, before leaving for his nine-day trip to Brazil, Gov. Martin O'Malley had said problems with Maryland's mind-numbingly bad health insurance exchange would be fixed by mid-December. I said mid-December was Dec. 15 at noon.

In fact, the halfway point of the month was Dec. 16 at noon. My math was off by a full 24 hours, so I may have been a little unfair to the governor.


Turns out, it didn't matter. O'Malley announced on Saturday, Dec. 14, two days ahead of his deadline, that the state's online exchange was "now functional for most citizens." Fixed!

Uninsured or underinsured Marylanders — such as Walter Regner; I'll tell you about him in a minute — would now be able to shop for health insurance policies under the Obamacare mandate without running into the glitches they'd experienced since the Oct. 1 rollout.


Just goes to show that, when our Democratic governor literally (because it really looks good on television) rolls up his sleeves and puts his mind to it — or when he sends "his people" into a project to clean up somebody else's mess — watch out.

Government competence, data-driven strategies, evidence-based policies and getting positive outcomes have been O'Malley trademarks since his days as mayor of Baltimore.

He once famously drew a stick-figure diagram to show judges and prosecutors how low-level cases could more efficiently move through the criminal justice system. He blasted the state's attorney for letting a little thing like stolen evidence keep her from prosecuting an allegedly crooked cop. He brought zero-tolerance policing to Baltimore, and we had thousands of people arrested for all kinds of petty offenses. Crime went down here, as it did throughout the country, and O'Malley developed the reputation of a muscular crime-fighter even as the police were sued for wholesale civil rights violations.

As governor, O'Malley continued to present himself as a smart-government moderate who could clean up any mess — the fiscal one his Republican predecessor had left in Annapolis, for starters. O'Malley brought his data-driven system for tracking the performance of city government to Annapolis. Citistat became StateStat. Then there was BayStat. StatThis, and StatThat.

And that will be an impressive, if wonky, record for O'Malley to tout when he runs for president. With so many people — and not just the tea party, but a lot of people — thinking that government is full of slothful boobs, that government is too costly and too often mismanaged, O'Malley can one day present himself to the nation as a competent executive, a man who gets it right.

Unless, of course, Maryland's health insurance exchange goes down as one of the worst in the nation.

Which is how it's still looking, despite O'Malley's claims that the system is "now functioning for most citizens."

I guess Walter Regner is not quite in the group of "most citizens." He has to start treatments for an illness in January. His insurance company told him his policy would be canceled on Dec. 31 because it did not meet Obamacare standards. That did not bother Regner; he figured he'd get into the Maryland exchange and find a better policy.


But since October, he's been unable to do that.

Regner is a 58-year-old, self-employed landscaper. He lives in Baltimore County with his family; he has three children under age 21.

He set up an account on the Maryland exchange in the first week of October, and that's as far as he got.

"I've never been able to log on after that," he told me Monday afternoon, "and I've tried at least a dozen times."

In mid-October, he gained the help of one of the state's Obamacare navigators. "She was excellent," Regner says. "She was very responsive."

But Regner still didn't get far. In fact, he soon learned that his Maryland Health Connection account had been "voided." He was told he could try to set up a new one when the site was fixed.


Yesterday, believing the governor when he said the exchange was "functional for most citizens," Regner tried again. "I tried to log on and create a new account, but both were negative. I tried to call the state help line, but it was constantly busy."

He's not sure what to do next. He might contact his insurance company about keeping his present policy for another year. "The thing that gets me is, I'm going to be a paying customer," he says. "I was going to pay a premium. I wasn't going to be getting Medicaid. I've paid my way [for insurance] my whole life. Why should I be the one disrupted like this?"

It has been suggested that O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, the administration's point man on Obamacare in Maryland, turn the whole operation over to the federal government. That would be politically humiliating for O'Malley and Brown, but it would probably help people like Regner get the insurance they need.

And what's more important?

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.