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House OKs bill on health exchange problems

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland House of Delegates on Tuesday voted to provide health insurance retroactive to the first of the year for people who tried to enroll on the state’s online health exchange but couldn’t complete the process due to computer problems with a state website.

The emergency legislation, which would take effect as soon as Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley signs it, opens up the Maryland Health Insurance Program to cover people who can show they tried to enroll by Jan. 1, but were blocked by long-running computer glitches with the health exchange website.

“This bill represents an attempt to correct a wrong, to help people who, through no fault of their own, anticipated that they would have health care coverage Jan. 1, had a health condition, had big bills and need some help,” said Del. Peter Hammen, D-Baltimore.

The 94-42 vote was mostly along party lines. There were 93 Democrats and one Republican who voted for the bill. Two Democrats and 40 Republicans voted against it.

Republicans said the bill was a waste of taxpayer money on an expensive and badly flawed system, which still isn’t working well.

“It’s like trying to put tires on a car that has a dead engine,” said Del. Kathy Afzali, R-Frederick, who voted against it.

Afzali and other Republicans also emphasized that the cost of the legislation hasn’t even been determined.

Hammen, however, said the state will face higher costs from uncompensated care without the legislation. He also said while the state has fallen far short of goals to enroll individuals in private plans, the state has exceeded expectations in getting people full Medicaid benefits.

The bill now goes back to the state Senate, which already passed a version of the bill. To send the measure to O’Malley for his signature, the Senate needs to approve a House change that requires MHIP to submit monthly reports to legislative panels on progress in enrolling people.

Lawmakers are taking up the backup plan in an election year when all 188 seats of the Maryland General Assembly will be decided in November, as well as statewide offices like the governorship. Republicans have been pointing to health exchange problems to criticize the leadership of the O’Malley administration and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who is running to succeed the term-limited governor. Brown also took on a high-profile role in advocating for Maryland to implement its own health exchange.

“This legislation is nothing more than a bailout and a cover up and another waste of taxpayer dollars,” said Del. Jeannie Haddaway, a Talbot County Republican who is the running mate of Harford County Executive David Craig, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor.

The state has estimated that between a few hundred and 5,000 more people would be eligible for the MHIP program under the bill. Hammen said the actual number is expected to be on the lower end because the four insurers in Maryland’s health exchange ended up extending a deadline for people to sign up retroactively to Jan. 1. About 1,400 households registered for the deadline, which expired last week. Still, supporters said the state needs a backup plan for people who did not enroll.

“There are some people that are in need,” Hammen said. “They need your help. This bill represents that help.”