Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown shows gall by claiming Md. is ‘leader’ on health-care reform

Robert McCartney
Columnist April 12

Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) has staked an early claim to the dubious honor of making our region’s most shameless and misleading 2014 campaign boast.

In a display of world-class chutzpah, Brown’s Web site asserts that he “has positioned Maryland as the national leader in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.”

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

National leader? Absolutely — but at dysfunctional computer systems.

The gubernatorial candidate is apparently counting on voters to forget or ignore that the Free State just scrapped as unworkable the $55 million Web site at the core of its $125 million health benefit exchange.

Other states have had similar problems, but Maryland was the first to take such a drastic step.

Brown’s gall is infuriating his opponents in the June 24 Democratic primary, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur (Montgomery).

But he has been ahead in the polls and could easily get away with it, for two reasons.

First, Democrats are so loyal to President Obama’s health-care law that they overlook or minimize the massive technical problems that afflicted its launch. (I strongly support the law but am appalled by its incompetent execution.)

Second, Brown’s powerful allies in Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration and the General Assembly are protecting his reputation. They have ensured that no independent state inquiry into the exchange’s problems is completed until well after the primary and general elections.

That means voters will cast their ballots with only partial knowledge of what role Brown and others played in making the bum decisions that produced a Web site too buggy to be worth fixing.

It also means the state risks starting its second sign-up period for health insurance in November without a full understanding of what went wrong the first time around.

By contrast, Oregon and Vermont have already produced independent studies of their exchanges’ problems.

In the latest and clearest example of Annapolis’s foot-dragging, a top state auditor reported April 3 that his initial review of the exchange’s problems was incapable of sorting out who was to blame.

“Generally, we were unable to determine who the key decision makers were, and what decisions were attributable to them,” Legislative Auditor Thomas Barnickel III said in the 31-page report.

Barnickel’s hands were tied, because the legislature’s misnamed “Joint Oversight Committee” restricted his assignment to looking at documents that had already been publicly released. More than a quarter of them had redactions.

“Because of the limitations of this review, we do not believe our observations provide a complete understanding of the processes employed and decisions made by [the health exchange],” Barnickel said.

Barnickel plans to conduct a genuine, full-fledged audit on the exchange’s regularly scheduled, three-year cycle. That means it won’t be complete until summer 2015 — or about six months after the newly elected governor takes office.

How convenient.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is doing a related audit, but even its results aren’t expected until December.

Brown’s actions (or inaction) in the launch were significant because O’Malley appointed him to be co-chair of the state council overseeing the health-care law’s rollout. That’s why his Web site calls him “the leader of Maryland’s effort to improve health care.”

Gansler had a part, as well. He was a member of the health-care council and, by all accounts, rarely attended.

The postmortems could be important for O’Malley because he is exploring running for president someday. Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats might look unkindly on a candidate who botched the opening phase of the party’s most important domestic policy initiative in a generation.

O’Malley and Brown have acknowledged in general terms that they share responsibility for the exchange’s problems. But they are quick to point the finger primarily at private contractors, particularly IBM, that provided inadequate software.

The public shouldn’t accept any buck-passing, given abundant signs that the state mishandled the project. The Washington Post reported in January that senior state officials failed to heed warnings that no one was ultimately accountable for it, and that the state lacked a plausible plan for how the exchange would be ready by October.

Charlie Hayward, a retired U.S. Government Accountability Office auditor, reached the same conclusion in a detailed, two-part analysis published last week on the Web site Maryland Reporter.

“The O’Malley/Brown administration, including [Health] Secretary Joshua Sharfstein, M.D., should have known that the exchange’s workload was too much for its nascent staff to manage, and they should have taken decisive action after major red flags in November 2012 of impending failure,” Hayward said.

He said the state leaders were guilty of “tunnel vision, poor planning, mismanagement and spin.”

Voters should press their leaders to provide less spin and more substance, preferably before Election Day.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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