Candidates politicize Maryland health exchange programs


In addition to fuelling Republican fire, the problems with the launch of the Maryland Health Exchange, Maryland’s Affordable Care Act portal, have also provided ammunition for fellow Democrats looking to defeat Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in June’s gubernatorial primary.

“At this point, he’s got to take responsibility,” said Jolene Ivey (D-47), who is running for lieutenant governor on Attorney General Doug Gansler’s 2014 ticket, at a Jan. 13 news conference held at their campaign headquarters in Silver Spring.

Gansler has been at the forefront of the attacks, most recently holding a news conference last week in which he and Ivey called on Brown to shoulder the brunt of the blame for the glitch-plagued launch.

Citing a recent Washington Post story that revealed many officials behind the launch were aware that the site might not be capable of handling the opening, Gansler and Ivey criticized the state’s choice of an out-of-state contractor to work on the site and called for an account of how the $170 million in additional federal funds provided for the state to become an early example of success was spent.

“In order to fix the problem, we have to know how this happened,” said Gansler.

Later in the week, Brown testified before the Senate Finance Committee in support of emergency legislation that would provide retroactive coverage to Marylanders who tried but were unable to register for a plan in time to be covered by Jan. 1.

Facing intense questioning from both sides of the aisle, Brown reiterated his statement that he was not aware of any real signs of trouble that would indicate the site was not ready to launch before the Oct. 1 deadline.

“In retrospect, if I knew nine months ago what I’ve learned since the launch, I would have insisted on receiving the underlying documentation that should have [supported] but didn’t support those reports,” he told the committee.

Brown and others involved in the exchange heard from many senators who expressed their disappointment in the Maryland site. From accusations of “malpractice” to labeling the launch as a “colossal failure,” the four-hour meeting was only the beginning of the legislature’s look into the handling of the launch.

Despite the criticism, Brown has kept health care listed on his campaign website under his “Real Results” tab, where the page says he, along with Gov. Martin O’Malley, “led the nation in implementing the Affordable Care Act.”

Irwin Morris, professor of American politics and chair of the government and politics department at the University of Maryland, said odds are the issue won’t likely dog Brown into June.

“The primary’s a good ways away,” said Morris. “Maintaining an issue like that for that sort of time period is pretty difficult if, as I would expect, the issues related to the rollout and the website become less significant and more people are able to sign up.”
While criticizing the rollout’s technical glitches is fair game for a Democrat in a state as blue as Maryland, putting a lot of effort into using the problems with the launch against Brown probably won’t pay off for any Democratic challengers, Morris predicted.

“Everyone admits there were issues,” he said. “If you invest a lot in [the Maryland Health Exchange launch] issue, what do you do when, as time goes on, it’s not a significant issue for the public? Do you want to base your campaign on an issue that may be a nonissue when the primaries are actually held?”

Despite the recent criticism, Matthew Crenson, political science professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University, said Brown remains the front-runner.

“He has all the assets,” said Crenson, noting that in addition to the major endorsements Brown and running mate Ken Ulman have collected over the past months, the campaign also surpassed the Gansler-Ivey campaign in funding in 2013, with more than $7 million on-hand as of Jan. 8.

Fellow democratic candidate Heather Mizeur, who has been at the center of a lot of health-care reform efforts, is in a good position to criticize Brown and the rollout, said Crenson. However, statements released by her campaign have not directly targeted Brown or anyone else by name but rather focused on the broader issues and fixes.

But regardless of how any contenders use the situation, said Crenson, “if the problems are fixed soon, people will forget.”

Brown will face Gansler, Mizeur, Charles U. Smith and Ralph Jaffe in the June 24 Democratic primary. The general election will take place Nov. 4.

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