- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2014

Maryland officials said Monday they have cut ties with the main contractor on its troubled Obamacare exchange and selected a vendor that helped the federal government rebound from its own problems on HealthCare.gov.

The Maryland Health Benefit Exchange’s board announced it is dropping Noridian Healthcare Solutions as the prime information-technology contractor and replacing the company with Optum/QSSI, a general contractor it had hired in December.

QSSI grabbed headlines last fall, when the Obama administration tapped it to oversee efforts in Columbia, Md., to repair the troubled federal website, HealthCare.gov, which serves the 36 states that — unlike Maryland and 14 other jurisdictions — did not set up their own Obamacare website.

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“This transition will support the Exchange’s goal of enrolling as many Marylanders as possible in quality, affordable health coverage by the close of open enrollment on March 31,” board chairman Joshua M. Sharfstein said.

He said Isabel FitzGerald, secretary of the state Department of Information Technology, is still reviewing ways to improve the Maryland exchange after open enrollment ends.

Plus, he left the door open to legal action.

“The Exchange is preserving all rights to seek damages against Noridian and its subcontractors for problems with the IT system,” he said.

In a statement, Noridian President and CEO Tom McGraw said his company and Maryland had struck a “mutual agreement” regarding the transition and that Noridian will support the exchange’s efforts to enroll consumers through the end of March. But he implied that the site’s woes were the state’s fault.

“Throughout the past four months, Noridian has complied with its contractual obligations under tremendous pressure and constant changes by the state,” he said.

“As prime contractor, Noridian has implemented 163 infrastructure fixes and performance tuning activities and identified and completed 445 enhancements and bug fixes including the nine critical incidents identified by Governor [Martin] O’Malley, all greatly increasing the functionality of the state-run exchange.”

Maryland is among several Democratic-led states that embraced the Affordable Care Act from the start, yet struggled when their exchanges went live Oct. 1. Glitches on the web portals have led to disappointing enrollment numbers in these states, and the issue is becoming a political liability for governors and other officials who oversaw the troubled rollouts.

The Maryland website’s software defects were so severe that state officials released a plan in mid-January to offer consumers “retroactive” coverage dating to Jan. 1, after they could not purchase plans in time for the new year.

State Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler is using the Maryland exchange’s problems against his Democratic primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who oversaw the Obamacare rollout, in the race to succeed Mr. O’Malley.

Mr. Gansler last month called on state officials to let residents use HealthCare.gov instead of the state website, citing reports that Medicaid enrollment forms were sent to the wrong addresses and that a customer help line mistakenly sent callers to a Seattle pottery business.

Mr. Brown’s campaign manager has said it is “disappointing, but not surprising, to see Doug Gansler parroting right-wing Republican attacks on Obamacare.”