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Politics

Open Enrollment Ended But Health Exchange Politics Are Ramping Up

Christopher Connelly/WYPR
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The board of directors for Maryland’s health exchange are meeting this afternoon to decide what to do with the state’s problem-plagued web site. The vote will likely go for replacing the system – possibly using Connecticut’s highly successful system -- but even though the exchange is likely on its way to the trash heap, it remains a political football in the race for governor.

Attorney General Doug Gansler took the end of open enrollment on Maryland’s health exchange Monday as an opportunity to hit Democratic front-runner Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown. At a news conference in front of Mercy Medical Center in downtown Baltimore, Gansler opened with a list of everything he wouldn’t do if he were in charge of the exchange.

“We won’t take six months and counting, like Anthony Brown has done, to fix a problem that’s depriving people of health care in our state,” he started off the list.

He accused Brown of shirking responsibility, failing to apologize for the mistakes that were made, and trying to frame the rollout as better than it’s been by pointing to whole enrollment numbers instead of private insurance enrollments, which have lagged behind the goal.

“And we won’t spin and make up numbers like Anthony Brown is doing to attempt to dupe the public into thinking that the enrollment was a success,” Gansler said.

The Attorney General isn’t alone in making political hay out of the health exchange problems. Pretty much all of the gubernatorial candidates have sought to cast aspersions on Brown for the website’s troubles.

Republican hopeful Larry Hogan says Brown should be banned from any further involvement with the exchange.

“He’s been the one responsible. It’s been probably the biggest disaster that the Maryland state government has ever been involved in,” Hogan said.

Hogan says now we’re rushing to make decisions about what to do to make the exchange work, without figuring out what went wrong first.

“I think we need to stop all work on this health exchange until the costs, the influences and the management failures can be made public,” Hogan said.

But Anthony Brown told WYPR’s Maryland Morning that the next open enrollment period will be a success, whatever is done with the exchange website, because Maryland has had the chance to learn from mistakes here and across the country. But the main problem with the site, he says, is that the contractors hired by the state failed to provide a system that worked. “Venders that we contracted with to deliver a system just didn’t deliver as promised,” he said.

In polls of likely voters, Brown remains in the lead. His numbers have slipped since somewhat the fall and one in four likely Democratic voters said they were less inclined to vote for Brown because of the health exchange problems. But Brown is still pretty firmly in front of the pack.

“Anthony Brown is benefiting from the fact that it’s a one party state, so he doesn’t have to worry about an opposition party sort of driving this story,” said St. Mary’s College political science professor Todd Eberly. “And he is sort of the hand-picked candidate of the Democratic Party.”

Eberly says it’s hard to guage the damage that the tech troubles have had on Brown's bid already, but the more severe poll pain will come after the legislative session when the campaign becomes the central political issue and the debates start and his opponents can use it to their benefit. “It’s a perfectly tailored issue for a Democrat to say ‘I love this law, this is a crucial law, people’s health, vitality rests upon the success of law and it was horribly mismanaged and what a tragedy that is.’”

And while Gansler is working hard to peg a flawed health exchange to Brown’s record, Eberly doesn’t think he’ll actually benefit from it as much as the third Democrat in the race, Heather Mizeur, who has positioned herself as furthest from the establishment and whose campaign Eberly says is more disciplined than Gansler’s. “It seems as if Mizeur has been more on message, more focused, and perhaps better positioned to benefit from this.”

Still in all of the polling done the largest block on  both Democratic and Republican side are the undecideds, so with only a few months before the primary, there’s a lot that can – and will – change.