By By Andrea K. Walker and Erin Cox and The Baltimore Sun
Jan 12, 2014 | 8:25 PM
Gov. Martin O'Malley took his defense of Maryland's struggling health exchange onto national television Sunday after CNN host Candy Crowley described its rollout as "disastrous by most accounts."
O'Malley's defense came as Rep. John Delaney of the Western Maryland 6th District renewed his call for the state to abandon its exchange for the federal system, and O'Malley's remarks prompted criticism from some skeptical lawmakers.
The governor said the state did not drop the ball on the project, despite knowing about problems well before the problematic launch. The creation and launch of the site were riddled with problems, including feuding contractors, shoddy technology and troubled management.
"This complex IT challenge had ups and downs every step of the way. There were lots of cautionary lights, lots of red lights, but there were also green lights," O'Malley said. "This was a very complicated endeavor."
O'Malley made his comments in a wide-ranging interview on CNN's "State of the Union" that touched on whether he is still evaluating a run for president, his position that the state's minimum wage should be increased to $10 an hour, and that he had considered moving Maryland's troubled health exchange to the federal site as far back as June.
The governor said he still expects the state to meet its goal of enrolling 260,000 people in health care by March 31 even as the state lags far behind its goal to enroll people in private plans. About 180,000 total people have enrolled in private plans and Medicaid, O'Malley said. While enrollment in Medicaid has exceeded state goals, the state has signed up about 20,000 of the 150,000 officials say they hope to enroll in private plans.
Officials at the exchange have said some of the Medicaid enrollees may be duplicates or they may not have submitted all the required paperwork.
"That web site is now functional for most citizens," the governor said. "And we're still working through the problems."
That didn't ease the concerns of some Republican critics.
Del. Justin Ready, a Republican from Carroll County, said in a phone interview after the appearance that the governor's "rhetoric is wearing a little thin."
"I wouldn't take a victory lap yet if I was the governor," Ready said.
State House Minority Leader Nic Kipke of Anne Arundel County said he is not confident the state has a solution that will make the site work.
"Everything the governor is saying has more to do with politics than the actual experience we are having with the exchange," Kipke said. "As we continue to move forward, there is a cost to repairing the exchange. And to date, there doesn't seem to be any clear fix."
O'Malley acknowledged the exchange's troubled start during the CNN interview, as he has in the past.
"We squibbed the kickoff," he said. "But we're making it better."
O'Malley gave some indication that moving to the federal site is not a panacea as some fellow Democrats, including Delaney, a Montgomery County Democrat, have suggested. Delaney reinforced his stance in a statement Sunday.
"In addition, and at a minimum, Maryland should consider running Healthcare.gov and the Maryland Connection simultaneously to expand options for Marylanders," Delaney said. "To my mind, the fact that the White House has offered to take over portions of Maryland's exchange underscores my own independent analysis that this transition is not difficult from a technical perspective."
O'Malley said it's something that, perhaps, should be evaluated after the enrollment period has ended.
"It's not only the benefits, but it's also the risks of switching over in the middle of enrollment ... and diverting the IT assets and resources to this," O'Malley said.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski also said last week that moving to the federal site, which also had a "creaky" start like in Maryland, would not be advantageous.
O'Malley spokeswoman Nina Smith said a decision has not yet been made about whether to move to the federal site.
"We'll announce a plan as soon as the governor and lieutenant governor have made a decision," Smith said.
Also on Sunday, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Douglas F. Gansler criticized challenger Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown. Bob Wheelock, spokesman for the Gansler campaign said Brown recently touted the positive performance of the website, despite continuing problems.
"Either the lieutenant governor knows of the failures and is not being truthful or he's totally out of the loop while pretending to be in charge," Wheelock said. "Either way, it's bad for Marylanders in need of health care. And either way, it's time to testify and start telling the truth."
Brown's campaign could not be reached for comment Sunday.
Some have said the bungled rollout could prove a political liability not only for Brown but also for O'Malley, who has cast himself as a technologically savvy leader.
When twice asked directly about whether he had decided to run for president, O'Malley said he was still considering it.
"I'm thinking about it, but right now I'm focused on what I need to do for the good people of our state," he said.
The two-term Democrat declined to elaborate on how he would sell himself — and his record of supporting gun-control, same-sex marriage and in state tuition for immigrants — to a national audience should he run for president after his term as governor ends this year.
Instead, O'Malley said "what the people of our country want is not ideology, not trickle-down economics, but middle-out economics where we strengthen our middle class to grow our economy."
The governor cast his top priority of the upcoming session — raising Maryland's minimum wage above $7.25 an hour — as crucial to helping the middle class. His revelation that state leaders are "zeroing in around the $10 an hour minimum wage in Maryland," marked the first time the governor set a dollar amount for the new wage.
O'Malley also said the state budget he will release this week will close what has been characterized as a structural budget shortfall, estimated to be roughly $500 million, "without any new taxes."
O'Malley demurred when asked about the bridge scandal engulfing his long-time political sparring partner Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who is considered a Republican front-runner for the presidential nomination in 2016.
The scandal dominated political news this week after emails revealed top Christie aides orchestrated a four-day traffic jam in the New Jersey town of Fort Lee, reportedly as political retribution against the city's mayor. Christie gave a two-hour news conference apologizing to the people of New Jersey this week. O'Malley, who has frequently taken opportunities to jab at Christie, declined to do so Sunday.
"I don't know that I can really shed more light on it," O'Malley said. " I think this is something for the people of New Jersey to get to the bottom of."
The governor wasn't the only Maryland politician on the Sunday morning national talk show circuit: Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake appeared on "Meet The Press;" U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings was on CBS' "Face the Nation"; and Sen. Ben Cardin and U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen appeared on "Fox News Sunday."
Rawlings-Blake, who is secretary of the Democratic National Committee, said she was "loathe" to criticize Republican Christie, but questioned the culture the governor created in his administration.
"When you set up this culture of callousness, and when you have a history of telling people to 'go blank themselves' and calling reporters 'idiots,' you can't play it both ways," said Rawlings-Blake, who's had her own icy exchanges with reporters in Baltimore in the past.
Staff writer Luke Broadwater contributed to this report.