Maryland’s health insurance-site debacle: A scandal of incompetence

Petula Dvorak
Columnist January 13

No one can look at The Washington Post’s exhaustive investigation into the construction, rollout and crash of the Maryland health insurance exchange and walk away with any measure of confidence in government.

How could this epic bungling have happened in a state that often oozes self-satisfaction with its progressive policies, led by a governor who considers himself a 2016 presidential contender?

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Hubris, vanity and plain incompetence all played a role and have cost tens of thousands of Marylanders health coverage for months. Some of these folks have heart conditions, diabetes or other chronic health problems and need treatment that they can’t afford.

The legislature is trying to apply a Band-Aid to the problem by passing emergency legislation that would retroactively cover all those people who tried to sign up but couldn’t. Here’s an idea: Why not have Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and his blundering minions pay the medical bills of the uninsured out of their own pockets?

The spectacular failure of the Web site designed to help Maryland residents sign up for a health insurance program that works best for them is a long, complex story, but it goes something like this:

Hours after the Affordable Care Act was signed into law in 2010, O’Malley-in-2016 thumped his chest and announced that Maryland would be the leader in implementation of the new law.

And after $170 million, lots of fighting, quitting, finger-pointing, litigation and side trips to Fargo, N.D., and Ukraine, the Web site that was supposed to quickly sign up hundreds of thousands of Marylanders for health insurance could only let four people into the system when it launched Oct. 1.

Yes, the state outsourced one of its most important, complicated technology initiatives in years to a company in Fargo. Of course, the Silicon Plains.

And Ukraine? How on earth did that hotbed of global identity theft come to be involved in a Web site with people’s most sensitive of information?

I talked to some friends in the IT world, folks who have been through dozens of launches of similarly complex projects. Everyone was shocked at the dysfunction in this particular venture.

“Sounds like they didn’t even do basic feature testing, load testing or stress testing of the system,” said one IT professional who has been doing this stuff for a couple of decades. “Pretty typical of a lot of companies, not doing scaled testing, but anybody stupid enough to do a ‘hard launch’ (meaning turning it on and then advertising) of that size without sufficient featuring and load testing is asking for disaster.”

The failure to launch wasn’t the only problem, though.

Timeline

A timeline of events and related documents tied to the Maryland health care exchange.

According to the e-mails, reports, files and documents that The Post’s Aaron Davis and Mary Pat Flaherty obtained, the auditors hired to oversee the project had been sending out distress signals for months.

It was the politicians — O’Malley, who prides himself on being a detail guy, and his aspiring successor, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown — who kept pushing forward despite all the warning signs.

It’s like the bus driver who ignored a stop sign, a red light, screams from passengers, honks from onlookers, the spike sticks thrown into the road to deflate all four tires and a row of steel bollards who then couldn’t believe he crashed into a building.

After repeated warnings that the site wasn’t working, the director of the site at the time, Rebecca Pearce, went to the IT company’s headquarters to check on progress 12 days before launch.

The room was virtually empty.

In any other venture, 12 days before launch is about the time that coders stop talking to anyone and eat only food flat enough to be slipped under the door. They’re working round-the-clock.

Yet, O’Malley insisted on going live Oct. 1.

What a disaster.

Here’s the kicker. Maryland — the state that said it would do this best and be a model for the nation, the state that has ranked No. 1 in the nation for education five years in a row, has been progressive on gun control and same-sex marriage and is pushing for a higher minimum wage — is being smoked by Kentucky.

Yes, Kentucky’s health exchange Web site, though not as flashy as the one Maryland is still trying to get to work, has been signing people up at a much faster rate. This from a state that compares poorly with Maryland on most measures of health and well-being, from smoking to obesity to high school graduation rates. But apparently not technology competence.

Most of the bad-guv bandwidth these days is going to that bridge guy in Jersey. And to the gift-grubbing first couple who just left the governor’s mansion in Virginia.

Yes, their transgressions are juicy — the deadly sins of vengeance and greed play well as punch lines.

But O’Malley’s Web site scandal deserves as much scrutiny and derision as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, got for their sins.

O’Malley’s crime was incompetence and the inability to make an entire governmental system function properly. That may seem boring, but it has the potential to be deadly as well.

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

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