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Probe of state’s health exchange sparks political sparring

ANNAPOLIS – Two top elected Maryland Democrats are split in their reaction to news that the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services plans to investigate Maryland’s troubled health care exchange.

Gov. Martin J. O’Malley criticized Rep. Andy Harris, the state’s only Republican in Congress, for requesting the federal review.

In an emailed statement, O’Malley said: “We welcome this review … but it’s no mystery what happened: The vendors we hired failed to deliver us the product they promised.”

The board of trustees for the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange fired the primary contractor, Fargo, N.D.-based Noridian Healthcare Solutions, after a surprise meeting held on a Sunday night last month.

O’Malley also charged Harris with political motivations.

“Cong. Harris, like all Congressional Republicans, is opposed to the Affordable Care Act — they’ve voted 50 times to repeal it. But remember, because of the ACA, insurance companies can’t deny coverage because of a preexisting condition; they can’t drop someone if they get sick, and children can stay on their parents’ plans until they’re 26,” O’Malley said in the emailed statement.

Harris announced Sunday that the inspector general would review the site, which is expected to cost more than $250 million by 2015. The much-reported failures of the site related to the rollout of the federal Affordable Care Act has resulted in the creation of a special joint task oversight committee within the General Assembly.

In an interview Monday, Harris said he was happy for the inspector general’s involvement.

“They’re generally seen as the best investigative group to do it,” said Harris. “Just let the sunshine in.”

The inspector general is a nonpartisan organization, staffed with career employees, with subpoena powers.

Additionally, Harris said that a review of Oregon’s exchange by the federal Government Accountability Office could be expanded to other states, including Maryland. That review is not thought to be as in-depth as an inspector general’s investigation and the GAO does not have subpoena powers.

Legislators in Annapolis have resisted appointing an independent investigator, saying such efforts would limit the ability of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange to correct problems by the time the open enrollment period ends on March 31.

“If it was a legitimate excuse that we can’t do anything because it would interfere with the operations of a department then we’d never investigate anything,” Harris said.

Last month, officials with the health exchange told legislators that some problems will not be fixed by the deadline and that officials are considering other options, including shutting down the site and joining the federal health exchange or using code from more successful sites in other states.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler issued a statement saying he welcomes the review and criticizing Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who led the effort to implement the state’s health benefit exchange.

“Marylanders deserve answers about how their tax dollars were spent and about why — more than five months after the failed rollout — Lieutenant Governor Brown still hasn’t answered important questions or proposed any solutions for fixing the exchange and getting health insurance for people who can’t buy it online,” Gansler said in his statement.

Gansler and Brown are both seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in the June primary.

Brown did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange declined comment.

Rep. John K. Delaney, a Democrat who represents Montgomery County and Western Maryland, said the federal review was appropriate.

“My preference would be that the state conducts a thorough, transparent and timely investigation, so that those closest to the problem can address it promptly,” Delaney said in a statement. “However, because so much of the taxpayer money wasted on the Maryland exchange was federal, I believe it is appropriate that the inspector general at HHS also investigate the matter. The federal government has been very responsive in tackling problems and I hope that that spirit animates our leaders here in Maryland.”

Delaney has previously urged state officials to abandon the defective state health benefit exchange in favor of the federal website.

The federal review does not satisfy other Republicans in the General Assembly.

Sen. David S. Brinkley, R-Frederick and Carroll, said he still wants the legislature to appoint an independent counsel with subpoena power to review the site.

“The federal government will look at federal money,” Brinkley said. “We still need someone to review the state resources and state procurement process related to this site.”

Brinkley is a member of the Joint Oversight Committee on the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange.

Del. Kathy Szeliga, R-Baltimore County and Harford, is the lead sponsor of an emergency bill that, if passed, would require the appointment of an independent investigator.

Earlier this month the joint oversight committee approved a plan that included a performance audit of the exchange. That review will not be completed until sometime in the summer of 2015.

“There’s been a tremendous misuse of state and federal resources,” Brinkley said.