Maryland legislative group to review troubled health exchange, assess its future

Leaders of the Maryland General Assembly announced Thursday that a bipartisan group of legislators will meet regularly in the coming months to provide “ongoing legislative oversight” of the state’s troubled health exchange.

Del. Peter A. Hammen (D-Baltimore), the chief organizer, said the group will assess the current state of the exchange and what changes need to be made when the first enrollment period ends on March 31. At that point, Maryland will have just over seven months to revamp its existing exchange or come up with another solution, such as using all or part of the federal marketplace or another state’s system. Hammen said Maryland needs to have a plan in place.

“A thing that keeps me awake at night is that round two of open enrollment starts Nov. 15,” said Hammen, who is chairman of the House of Delegates Health and Government Operations Committee. “The most important thing is that we have a fully functioning exchange. It’s critical. And the clock is ticking for the next round.”

It has taken lawmakers weeks to decide how best to fully examine and tackle problems with the exchange, which unexpectedly crashed soon after launching on Oct. 1 and continues to be difficult for Marylanders to use.

After briefings and hearings in January, it was unclear when lawmakers would continue their inquiry into the problems.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said last week that most of the work would likely be left to state auditors during a previously scheduled review of the exchange set to begin this summer. That prompted Republicans and some Democrats to accuse legislative leaders of ignoring the exchange’s problems in order to protect Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), who is running for governor and was tasked with implementing President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Maryland is one of 14 states that launched its own health-insurance marketplace instead of relying on the federal one.

In a statement on Thursday, Middleton said that “from the beginning” he wanted to “do a thorough review of what happened and what can be done” once the first enrollment period ended.

“I believe the convening of this joint bipartisan group is an appropriate next step to achieve these goals,” Middleton said.

Brown said in a statement that he welcomes the proposal for continued oversight of the exchange.

“As I have said many times over the past few months,” he said, “Marylanders deserve accountability and there should be a comprehensive and meaningful review of the challenges facing the exchange, both past and present.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said the upcoming meetings will allow lawmakers to understand the ongoing status of the exchange and “begin a process to learn the tough lessons which led us to this point.” House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said lawmakers have a “responsibility to the public to ensure the functionality of the Health Exchange” and the bipartisan oversight group will allow them to do that.

The five delegates and five senators will first meet on Monday and will likely gather every two to three weeks for months to come, even after the 2014 General Assembly session ends in April, said Hammen, who will co-lead the group with Middleton.

Hammen said that the state’s current exchange is “not fully functional” and that Marylanders should not have to wait on the phone for hours to sign-up for health insurance. “It’s there, it’s within their grasp, but because of an IT, tech problem, they can’t get it,” he said. “That’s very frustrating for me.”

Hammen said that he has asked state health and exchange officials to attend the Monday meeting and address questions about the enrollment numbers, consumer experiences, functionality of the site, known problems and what it will take to fix them, work-arounds that are currently being used and how much money has been and will be spent on the exchange. Lawmakers also want to know a range of details about the contractors who have worked on the system, he said.

At future meetings, Hammen said the group will likely want to hear from the four insurance carriers participating in the exchange and Medicaid officials.

“There’s a lot there, and we have a very short time frame,” Hammen said. “Decisions have to be made, and they have to be made quickly.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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