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Troubled Maryland health exchange could spark political fallout

Check out this statement from the president of the Maryland Senate, Thomas V. Mike Miller, on the state's gawd-awful-and-now-abandoned health insurance website: "You can blame it on the contractor, blame it on the subcontractor, but the buck stops with state government. And it hasn't been done properly."

Excuse me? Is this guy supporting Anthony Brown for governor in the June primary? Indeed, he is. I checked. The Brown campaign lists Miller as one of a zillion Democrats who have lined up like good muldoons to support the lieutenant governor. But that statement from Miller, the way I read it, lands like a water balloon on Brown's head — or at least close enough to get his wingtips wet.

After all, Brown was the point man on the rollout of the Affordable Care Act in Maryland; he's the face of the state government where, Miller says, the buck should stop. Miller did not name Brown, but he came pretty close. Splash!

Maybe the Senate president is, like a lot of Democrats who support the ACA, just embarrassed by what happened starting last October, when the website crashed on the launch pad. The fix has cost the state and federal governments — make that, taxpayers — millions more than the original cost, and a lot of people experienced more stress than they should have to get insurance.

Consider two of my health insurance peeps: Elaine Blanchard and Walter Regner. They contacted me a while ago because of the problems they were experiencing, and as Monday's deadline approached for insurance under the ACA, they both still had one foot in Health Insurance Hell.

They had started the process of getting new or improved health insurance plans, but had been stymied for one reason or another. They'd either been locked out of the website (Regner's problem) or had a policy confirmed and then canceled (Blanchard's issue).

But, as time went by, things seemed to be getting better for them. I figured that, if they were no longer contacting me, then things must have worked out for them.

Er, not quite.

Blanchard is the single mom from Baltimore County who qualified for subsidized private insurance. In December, she thought she had successfully negotiated Maryland's website to get a policy with CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield. Her plan was supposed to be effective Jan. 1.

But she said she had never received a bill and, concerned about her coverage, she called the Maryland Health Connection, the state's online insurance exchange. She said she called "hundreds of times" before finally getting through. And when she finally got through, she was told to call CareFirst.

She called Carefirst so many times without getting through that she finally gave up. She contacted me three weeks ago after getting a letter that said her policy had been canceled due to nonpayment.

Carefirst insisted that the bill had been mailed and never paid. Blanchard said she never got the bill.

After I reported on Blanchard's frustrations, someone from the exchange called her and offered to help. The last time I spoke to Blanchard, she seemed optimistic about getting a policy with CareFirst, her top choice.

But on Monday, her email dropped in my box, reporting that she still didn't have confirmation of insurance, despite having paid a premium.

By Wednesday afternoon, after making more phone calls, Blanchard indicated that things were improving. But I don't know for sure if she has insurance today.

As for Regner, the self-employed guy whose problems with the online exchange I first reported in December — I thought I had heard the last of him, too. But he received a letter last week from the exchange saying that his application was incomplete and asking him to call the state's hotline.

"I called the number," Regner reported in an email. "Nice lady told me she gets lots of calls with my issues and directed me back to an enrollment specialist. After about an hour and a half on the phone, he told me I needed to re-enroll! This ain't no way to run a popsicle stand."

Regner is right about that. Ain't no way to run a popsicle stand, not in a purportedly progressive blue state with a purportedly tech-savvy administration in Annapolis.

Over the last several weeks, the state has had a lot of success in getting thousands of people enrolled in new or improved health insurance plans — despite the crummy web site.

Now, as we move along to yet another online exchange — at a cost of another $50 million or so — we must ask the question: Will there be any consequence to Anthony Brown's gubernatorial ambitions for this expensive and embarrassing mess?

Gov. Martin O'Malley, the man who put Brown in charge of Obamacare in Maryland, likes to publicly blame the contractors who developed the gawd-awful-and-now-abandoned website, and he promised to take them to court. Good. Fine. But even Mike Miller says that "the buck stops with state government," and that looks like Anthony Brown to me.


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

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