Gansler hopes to wield Maryland health exchange woes as a club against Brown


Gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Doug Gansler (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Maryland gubernatorial hopeful Douglas F. Gansler is pounding his chief rival, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, over the state’s deeply troubled online health exchange, convinced that the tactic will help him gain ground in the polls ahead of the all-important Democratic primary in June.

Gansler, the state attorney general, brought up the health-care “debacle” barely three minutes into his introductory comments at a candidates forum last week. He has highlighted the “mess” in three television ads — the latest debuted Thursday — and in one lengthy radio spot. And he has set up a Web site questioning when Brown will “come clean” about the exchange’s shortcomings.

With just eight weeks until the vote, and even Gansler’s own polling showing him trailing Brown, analysts say that Maryland’s chief law enforcement officer has little choice but to try to tear down the front-runner.

But the strategy could be risky in an overwhelmingly Democratic state where the federal Affordable Care Act remains popular. For one thing, it remains unclear how much blame voters are putting on Brown for problems with the online exchange. Although Brown did not oversee day-to-day operations of building the exchange, he was tasked by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) with implementing federal health-care reform in Maryland, and the exchange is a crucial part of that.

And since only a small percentage of Marylanders has been directly affected by the health exchange, analysts say that Gansler’s attacks may not resonate with as many voters as his campaign hopes — and could even distract from his effort to portray himself as a candidate of ideas.

“Right now, this is the best punch Gansler’s got, and Brown may be a little bloodied by it,” said Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “But it remains to be seen how much mileage he can get.”

Schaller said Gansler needs to make clear his criticism is directed at Brown and not health-care reform more generally, particularly given that his audience right now is Democratic primary voters who tend to embrace Obamacare.

Maryland was one of 14 states that chose to build their own marketplace rather than rely on the federal exchange, which also got off to a rocky start. Maryland’s site crashed during its Oct. 1 debut, and after months of technological glitches, state leaders decided to replace the system using computer code from Connecticut. The decision is expected to add more than $40 million in costs to the project, on which the state has already spent about $130 million.

“As I’ve said on a number of occasions, everyone involved in establishing the health benefits exchange has responsibility, and that includes me,” Brown told the audience at a candidates forum last week in Silver Spring. “I sincerely regret that any Marylander had difficulties accessing health care through the Web site. I don’t think there was anyone more frustrated than I was in October.”

Brown says that once the site’s problems became clear, he took several proactive steps, including pushing to fire the private contractors responsible for building Maryland’s system.

He also points out that 326,000 Marylanders have enrolled in health plans since Oct. 1 despite the glitches, exceeding the state’s goal for its first enrollment period — a line that drew applause from the audience in Silver Spring. (The vast majority of those who enrolled are participating in Medicaid, government-funded insurance for the poor and disabled, rather than in private plans offered through the exchange.)

Gansler’s running mate, Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George’s), said that Brown’s efforts to cast his role in a positive light have helped make the health exchange a potent issue for the Gansler campaign.

“It’s been a disaster, and Anthony Brown wants to claim victory,” Ivey said. “People feel like they’re being insulted.”

Gansler tries to contrast Brown’s work on the health exchange with his own tenure as attorney general. While Brown’s most important project was failing, he tells voters, he was delivering relief for homeowners facing foreclosure, among many other things.

“I actually did the work and got things done,” Gansler said at the candidates forum Wednesday.

A third Democrat in the race, Del. Heather R. Mizeur (Montgomery), and four Republican hopefuls have also faulted Brown over the exchange — but none has talked about it as much as Gansler.

In just about every campaign announcement, Gansler finds a way to work in a reference. Recently, as he touted an endorsement by the Coalition of Asian Pacific American Democrats of Maryland, Gansler took a dig at Brown, commenting that his rival “did next to nothing to help non-native English speakers sign up for health insurance during the botched exchange Web site rollout.”

A Washington Post poll in February suggested that Gansler’s team had a tough sell on the issue. Only 5 percent of Marylanders said that Brown was “mainly to blame” for the problems with the state’s health exchange. Forty-one percent said that state or federal health administrators were most responsible, while 11 percent mostly blamed O’Malley.

Brown, meanwhile, had a 19 percentage point lead statewide over Gansler among Democratic and Democratic-leaning independent voters. Mizeur was in third place.

Earlier this month, the Gansler campaign started circulating a poll conducted by its own pollster that suggested doubts about Brown’s leadership on health care were starting to sink in. But even that poll showed Brown leading, though by a smaller margin than The Post’s poll.

Some Brown supporters are skeptical that the dynamics of the race have changed.

“People aren’t coming up to me and talking about the health exchange,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who has endorsed Brown. “People know there are flaws in it, but it doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect on the race up to now.”

Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, said he has been disappointed by how much of the debate in the governor’s race has focused on the performance of the state’s Web site. DeMarco, a longtime health-care advocate who has not endorsed a candidate, said the number of Marylanders who have gained insurance since October — through Medicaid or private plans — is pretty remarkable.

“Yes, there were Web site problems, that’s true,” DeMarco said. “But I am pained anytime I hear anyone describe the Affordable Care Act as anything less than a success in our state.”

John Wagner is a political reporter covering the race for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

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