Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney
Columnist

Correction:

An earlier version of this column misquoted Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown as saying a staff “search” was launched in October to fix problems in the state’s health insurance exchange. This version has been corrected to reflect that he said a staff “surge.”

Brown bungles health-care plan debut but will probably win Md. governorship anyway

In seven years in the shadows as Maryland’s lieutenant governor, Anthony Brown was given one high-profile task: Oversee the rollout of President Obama’s health-care plan in a heavily Democratic state sure to love it.

He bungled the assignment. Badly.

(Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post) - Anthony Brown smiles while greeting supporters after launching his campaign for his run for Maryland governor on May 10, 2013.

Now, as Brown campaigns for governor with strong backing from most of his party’s elite, voters have a right to ask why he deserves to advance a grade after he flunked his biggest test.

He dodged the question when I posed it directly at a news conference in Baltimore on Tuesday.

“The focus is not on the politics, the focus is on getting [the program] right for more Marylanders,” Brown said.

It’s safe to assume that Brown would have been happy to focus on the political advantages for him had the Maryland program been a model for the nation as the state predicted.

Brown was somewhat more forthcoming when I asked the same question Wednesday in a telephone interview. He pointed to his labors on domestic violence, veterans services and absorbing the impact of the realignment of U.S. military bases.

“Voters are going to evaluate me on the full range of work I’ve done as lieutenant governor,” he said.

But none of those issues packs as much punch as Obamacare. Also, although Brown accepts some responsibility for the dysfunction in the state health insurance exchange Web site, he tries to shift as much blame as possible to underlings.

He said the exchange itself, an independent body created by the state, failed to warn of the scale of the problems until Oct. 1. That’s the same day the exchange opened (or struggled to).

The exchange’s executive director, Rebecca Pearce, resigned Friday and for now is the chief scapegoat.

“As soon as the red flags appeared, which quite frankly happened on Oct. 1 for me and the office of the governor, we immediately mobilized the resources, reorganized the leadership, launched a staff surge, so we can get this fixed,” Brown told the news conference.

This raises the question of how, exactly, Brown was spending his time in more than three years as the highest ranking public official responsible for the program. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), named him co-chairman of the Maryland Health Care Reform Coordinating Council on the day after the Affordable Care Act was signed in 2010. The other co-chairman is Health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein.

In retrospect, it’s clear that the council exerted inadequate oversight of the information-technology operation. In addition, health insurance companies reportedly were unhappy that the council spent too much time on policy issues, and not enough on practical ones regarding whether consumers would be able to use the Web site.

“It was benign neglect, too much hands off. . . . They didn’t pay attention,” said Del. Pat McDonough (R-Baltimore County), a 10-year veteran of the House Health and Government Operations Committee.

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that while this was a serious foul-up, it’s unlikely to cost Brown the governorship.

First, Brown has six months until the Democratic primary to get the exchange working smoothly. Even as he sought to minimize his culpability, it was clear he takes seriously the need to correct the problems.

Second, virtually the entire Democratic establishment has lined up firmly behind Brown. He has an attractive résumé, including a Harvard law degree and military service in Iraq.

Third, the issue is one of competency and not morality.

“This is not a scandal that breaks important social mores or ethics. This isn’t something that is going to be a hot election issue . . . that’s going to fly in sound-bite politics,” said Laura Hussey, a political scientist at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Finally, Maryland Democrats’ sizable advantage in registered voters means Republicans offer little challenge in the general election in November.

“If you know the demographics and politics of Maryland, it’s an uphill battle,” McDonough said.

In the end, the botched debut will have two main losers. One is the tens of thousands of Marylanders who will not obtain health insurance as early as they should. The other is whatever reputation state government still possesses for making things work.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/
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