- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 14, 2014

ANNAPOLIS — Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown faced bipartisan displeasure at past and ongoing problems with Maryland’s health care exchange on Tuesday.

Republicans accused the state of malpractice and asked for an apology on behalf of unserved residents, while Democrats expressed disappointment at being left in the dark right up until the day the exchange opened and promptly crashed.

Mr. Brown, who is running to be the state’s Democratic candidate for governor, focused on efforts to get more people enrolled. Maryland officials said they were beginning outreach to customers about an agreement with insurers to provide retroactive coverage for those who unsuccessfully tried to get health care through the state’s glitch-plagued health care exchange.

“I think what we’re doing is we’re focusing on the fix and making progress,” Mr. Brown told reporters after speaking to House and Senate committees.

Mr. Brown also said he was never informed that “the exchange, the website … would be unable to launch on Oct. 1,” although in late September he was told there could be some problems with volume.

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration also announced it would stay the course with Maryland’s own health care exchange during the remaining months of open enrollment ending March 31, instead of moving to the federal site.

Mr. Brown testified before lawmakers about a plan to enroll people who had trouble signing up on the exchange to join an already existing state insurance pool. Mr. Brown told lawmakers the agreement with insurance providers should pave the way for all but several hundred of roughly 4,000 affected people to get insurance, but that a backup plan was still needed by opening up the Maryland Health Insurance Plan. The administration is backing emergency legislation to expand the plan.

People who seek insurance under the changes will need to demonstrate that they tried to enroll before Jan. 1. Some skeptical lawmakers questioned how the state could do that.

Mr. Brown said the state has the ability to confirm someone tried to get insured through the state’s computer system, even if the confirmation process was not 100 percent. Delegate Susan W. Krebs, Carroll Republican, questioned whether the state was making the same mistake of rushing into a complicated technological initiative as she believes it did by building its own health exchange in the first place. She also questioned how much the changes would cost the state.

“So, there are so many unanswered questions,” Ms. Krebs said.

Mr. Brown said the agreement to allow people to enroll in the plans will significantly reduce the number of affected people who would need to enroll in the Maryland Health Insurance Plan, which has served as a high-risk pool for state residents without insurance. State officials had estimated it would cost between $5 million and $10 million to provide coverage to between a few hundred and 5,000 people. That cost could drop to about $500,000 if the state enrolls most of the affected residents through the exchange retroactively.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans renewed a call to create a special joint investigative committee to review problems with the $170 million health care exchange.

“The administration’s rush to pass this bill makes it clear that the colossal failure of the Maryland Health Connection website is a symptom of deeper problems with Maryland’s inept handling of Obamacare implementation,” said Sen. David R. Brinkley, Frederick Republican, adding that the problems foreshadow dire consequences to future state budgets.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he specifically asked to make sure the state was ready for the Oct. 1 opening and was wrongly told that it was. Mr. Middleton, Charles Democrat, said the Legislature needs to have assurance the state is moving in the right direction with the exchange. He suggested lawmakers have discussions every two weeks to know how things are going.

The state set a goal of enrolling 150,000 people in qualified health plans, but as of Jan. 4 only 20,358 had enrolled.

The exchange’s poor performance so far has been a political headache for Mr. Brown, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to succeed Mr. O’Malley, who is term limited. Mr. Brown took on a high-profile leadership role to implement health care reform in Maryland.

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