Poll: Majority in Maryland back health reform, want to stick with state online exchange

February 19

If President Obama is weary of complaints about his struggling health-care law, he might want to spend even more time in the reliably blue state of Maryland.

Fifty-five percent of state residents back the federal health-care reform effort, according to a new Washington Post poll, with more than one-third of Marylanders saying they “strongly support” it. Nationally, opinion is much more mixed.

Maryland is home to one of the country’s least successful online health insurance marketplaces, but residents are largely forgiving of the missteps in implementing the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Beth McCracken-Harness, 46, said that she never hears negative comments about the law from her friends or neighbors in Cheverly. Sure, the rollout of the exchange has had problems, she said, but that pales in comparison with the good the law is doing.

“People need to have health insurance,” said McCracken-Harness,­­ a married mother of two who works part time from her home in Prince George’s County. “It’s a basic right.”

Maryland likes the Affordable Care Act but wants to keep the state health-care system.

In late January, a national Washington Post-ABC News poll found 46 percent of Americans for the ACA and 49 percent opposed. Strong opponents outnumbered strong supporters by 38 percent to 25 percent. In Maryland, in contrast, only 40 percent oppose the new law, with 29 percent voicing strong opposition.

Maryland’s high level of support is largely due to the state’s Democrats, who are more numerous and more supportive of the law than in other states. Seventy-six percent of Maryland Democrats support the ACA, compared with 65 percent of Democrats nationally. As in national polls, Republicans overwhelmingly oppose the law, while independents are split.

Maryland officials were some of the earliest and most enthusiastic supporters of Obama’s health-care reform efforts. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) promised that the state would launch its own online health insurance marketplace and pledged that it would be the best in the country, with a slew of special features.

But Maryland’s exchange crashed on its first day and continues to have so many technical defects and structural problems that state officials say they might abandon all or part of the system once the first enrollment period ends March 31.

The number of Marylanders signing up for private insurance through the exchange has lagged far behind what O’Malley and Brown had predicted. But the number of Medicaid enrollees has beaten expectations. State leaders say that by the end of March, 260,000 Maryland residents should have either public or private coverage.

Sixty percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans in the state say they would rather see Maryland fix its exchange than adopt the federal system — a rare example of bipartisan agreement on the divisive issue.

“A lot of states are having problems,” said Rosalyn Scarborough, 69, a retired high school special education teacher who lives in Columbia and is a registered Democrat. “The federal government is having problems. We can’t just say it’s a Maryland problem.”

The health-care exchange has become a focal point of the coming Democratic gubernatorial primary. Brown, who is running for governor, is tasked with implementing the ACA in Maryland and has been criticized for not foreseeing and preventing the exchange’s problems. He has said that his job was to set up a legislative framework for the exchange and that he was not aware of the system’s instability.

Brown holds a 2-to-1 lead over his closest rival, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, according to a Post poll. For months, Gansler has hammered Brown for mismanaging the implementation of health-care reform. Del. Heather R. Mizeur of Montgomery County, who is also running in the Democratic primary, has declared the exchange problems “a twin failure of leadership being asleep at the wheel when the program was being designed and then overpromising that everything was fixed when it wasn’t.”

Blame has yet to stick. More than four in 10 Marylanders point at state or federal health-care administrators when asked who is at fault for the debacle. Eleven percent say O’Malley is responsible, while just 5 percent pick Brown — nearly the same percentage of people who cited Obama, whose name was not given as an option.

“I don’t necessarily blame [Brown], but I’m not surprised, either,” said Rod Smith, 48, who lives in the Raspeburg neighborhood of Baltimore and will probably vote for Mizeur, for reasons other than the exchange. “I think to some degree, unless you are a techie, you couldn’t have seen this coming.”

But the exchange still has the potential to become a problem for Brown, especially when his opponents begin airing TV ads and more voters start focusing on the June 24 primary. Sixty percent say that Brown’s role in implementing the health-care law will factor into their voting decision.

Still, in criticizing Brown’s leadership, Mizeur and Gansler have to be careful not to appear to be criticizing the overall health-care reform effort. The Brown campaign has routinely responded to the criticism by accusing Gansler of sounding like a Republican.

The survey was conducted ­Feb. 13-16­ among a random sample of 1,002 adult residents of Maryland on conventional and cellular phones, in English and Spanish. The margin of error is 3.5 percentage points for the full sample.

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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