- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Obamacare rollout has gone so badly in some liberal-leaning states that it has turned into an issue in Democratic primaries, where incumbents are under attack for botching the enrollment period that began in October.

Some of those states were eager, early cheerleaders for the Affordable Care Act, making their failures all the more stark.

Website glitches in Maryland have wounded Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat whose potential 2016 presidential bid could be hurt if the problems aren’t fixed soon, analysts said.

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.

In Oregon, another early poster child for Obamacare, the website has been such a disaster that the state had to shuffle through a paper-only process instead of electronic enrollment. In Massachusetts, the state credited with paving the way for federal health care reforms, Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, apologized last week for how the state’s revamped health insurance exchange has performed.

Administration officials have, on multiple occasions, blamed Obamacare’s glitches at least in part on Republican obstructionism, either on Capitol Hill or in state capitals, which makes stumbles in these Democratic strongholds even more notable,

This week in Colorado, another state where Democrats control the governorship and the state legislature, officials were on the defensive after learning that the director of Connect for Health Colorado, Christa Ann McClure, had been indicted for stealing from her previous employer, a nonprofit housing agency in Montana. Ms. McClure has been placed on administrative leave from the state-run health insurance exchange after pleading not guilty this month to eight counts of theft and fraud.

Leaders in each state expedited President Obama’s reforms quickly after Congress passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010. A government report released this week said Massachusetts had enrolled few more than 8,000 people, a dismal showing for a state that pioneered the use of health care exchanges.

Maryland and Minnesota each failed to reach 30,000 enrollments. Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, whose leaders rejected the reforms, each signed up more than 100,000 people through the federal portal, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Oregon’s online portal, Cover Oregon, hasn’t signed up a single person — prompting U.S. Rep. Greg Walden and three congressional colleagues, all fellow Republicans, on Thursday to call for a federal investigation.

“The catastrophic breakdown of Cover Oregon is unacceptable, and taxpayers deserve accountability,” Mr. Walden wrote in a letter to the Government Accountability Office.

Signing up on paper only, Oregon has fewer than 34,000 enrollments. Neighboring Washington touted nearly 89,000 on its state-run exchange, according to the report. Colorado officials said 69,000 residents had enrolled as of Jan. 31, but the state is facing some of the highest average health care costs in the country through its state-run exchange.

Most states opted not to set up their own exchanges and left it to the federal government to step in. HealthCare.gov, the federal portal to enroll, has rebounded from early disasters, further highlighting problems for the states that are faltering.

In Minnesota, an outside consultant reviewed the state’s balky exchange, MNsure, and found a management structure that operated in constant “crisis mode.” Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat who is seeking re-election, is working with a top vendor to try to fix the situation.

Political analysts said voters in Minnesota and other “arctic blue” states aren’t likely to end up supporting Republicans, but the Obamacare hiccups could damage incumbents in party primaries.

“Really, it’s more ammo for the primary opponents in the Democratic Party,” Republican Party strategist Ford O’Connell said.

State Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler is using the Maryland Health Connection’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.

Indeed, Mr. Gansler’s attacks on Obamacare implementation have become so vigorous that the Brown campaign is puling out the “R-word.”

“It’s disappointing, but not surprising, to see Doug Gansler parroting right-wing Republican attacks on Obamacare,” Brown campaign manager Justin Schall said. “Lt. Gov. Brown remains focused on addressing the challenges of its implementation so that we can extend health care coverage to as many Marylanders as possible.”

Still, Mr. Brown holds a lead in Maryland polls and has two opponents who should carve up the “anti-Brown” vote and pave the way for victory in a heavily Democratic state, said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“If he does win and the website continues to have problems the GOP nominee, whoever that is, will certainly use [Obamacare issues] against him, though I can’t imagine that that alone would cause him to lose,” he said.

For Mr. O’Malley, Maryland’s health care exchange problems could hamper a potential White House campaign in 2016 against likely Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.

G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College, said the question for Mr. O’Malley is, what will the exchange look like “a year and a half from now?”

“Do I think [Mr. O’Malley] would rather run and not have that as a problem? Sure,” he said. “But he’s got a bigger problem, and that’s Hillary.”

Democratic strategist Jim Manley said Republican challengers in liberal states can get only so far with an anti-Obamacare message as states tackle the glitches on their health care portals.

“I’m confident it’s going to be working like it should and people are going to get the benefit out of it,” he said.

In Minnesota, Mr. Dayton is doubling down on health care reform ahead of his re-election bid.

“Unlike his Republican opponents who want to go back to the days of no coverage for pre-existing conditions and bankruptcies from health care bills, Gov. Dayton is working to make sure that all Minnesotans have access to the health care they need,” campaign spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci said.

The Republican Governors Association on Wednesday called on Oregon Gov. John A. Kitzhaber, who is seeking a fourth term this year, to answer for Cover Oregon’s failings, its costs and whether its architect had the best track record. Despite those concerns, the Democratic incumbent can take heart in the fact that Oregonians have not elected a Republican governor since 1982.

In Massachusetts, Mr. Patrick’s apology to users of the state’s Health Connector followed a critical report by Mitre, a tech security contractor hired to review the exchange. The report said key decisions about the exchange were not documented correctly or communicated to everyone involved in the project, and that consumers who do not qualify for subsidies may bypass the exchange altogether.

Jon Gruber, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked on the state’s reforms in 2006 before helping Mr. Obama with the federal law, blamed vendor issues for the exchange’s inability to upgrade to a system that could handle the health care enrollments.

“Instead of the most ambitious exchange, we ended up with a dysfunctional exchange,” he said. “But we are working on fixing that and have a good plan in place.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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