Rascovar column: Getting to the bottom of Md.’s $250M health care fiasco

By Barry Rascovar

For Maryland Reporter.com

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown testifies at Senate committee last week.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown testifies at Senate committee last week.

Accountability is sorely lacking when it comes to Maryland’s botched rollout of Obamacare. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown  is nowhere to be found when tough questions are asked. Gov. Martin O’Malley deflects “who’s at fault” inquiries, focusing instead on getting the deeply flawed software partly operable.

The computer system’s main contractor, Noridian Healthcare Solutions, blames its prime subcontractor, who in turn accuses Noridian — a healthcare services company, not an IT firm — of incompetence and conning the state. Given that Noridian has received $65 million to construct a failed system, the subcontractor may have a point.

No Probe Planned

Perhaps Health Secretary Josh Sharfstein will decide in April or May to pull the plug on this IT horror show and start all over with a proven system from another state or join the federal healthcare sign-up exchange. That will cost a pretty penny.

But no one seems in a hurry to find out who screwed up.

Democratic state lawmakers have put off till the summer a Department of Legislative Services analysis of what went wrong. That fits nicely with their support of Brown’s campaign to succeed O’Malley. It will be a long time after the June 24 primary before that DLS report surfaces.

Those same lawmakers tried to ignore the ongoing scandal during the current General Assembly session, but public pressure led to a series of hearings that deal with fixing the system rather than assessing blame. This helps Brown immensely, since he’s most likely to be fingered as the state official who was asleep at the switch.

Rep. Andy Harris (By American Life League on Flickr)

Rep. Andy Harris (By American Life League on Flickr)

Republican Rep. Andy Harris wants the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to probe Maryland’s waste of a quarter-billion federal dollars on a nearly inoperable system but that’s a political stunt by a tea party Republican who is becoming a nattering nabob of negativism.

Meanwhile, the O’Malley-Brown healthcare exchange continues to limp along with 29,000 Marylanders enrolled in private health plans — just one-sixth of the way to Brown’s previously stated goal of 180,000 and one-fifth of the way toward O’Malley’s 150,000 sign-up goal.

It’s a mess, the worst waste of taxpayer dollars in memory. Yet no one is launching a probe. It’s all being handled with kid gloves and diplomacy so as not to hurt Brown’s election bid or O’Malley’s longshot run for the White House.

Needing an impartial report

What’s needed is the equivalent of the Preston Report. Back in 1985, Maryland suffered a calamitous collapse of its privately insured savings and loan industry. It cost the state and S&L depositors hundreds of millions of dollars.

Gov. Harry Hughes and lawmakers created the Office of Special Counsel to probe “all aspects of the events” leading up to the S&L crisis. A prestigious Baltimore attorney, Wilbur (Woody) Preston, and a small team of his associates produced a package of legislative reforms and a 600-page report that detailed what went wrong and why. It was a honest and thorough report.

Attorney Wilbur Preston

Attorney Wilbur Preston

That’s what’s required now — an impartial dissection of this costly embarrassment by someone willing to lay out the facts without worrying about whether the blame falls on the lieutenant governor, the governor, the health secretary or the IT vendors.

How much of the blame belongs to O’Malley, who ultimately is responsible for what goes on in his administration? This was, after all, the most important initiative the state has undertaken in ages.

How much of the blame for this healthcare fiasco sits on Brown’s shoulders?

He’s made a big deal of his leadership on this reform, though he’s recently tried to weasel out by claiming he was only in charge of the legislation (also severely flawed) setting up the exchange.

Brown clearly was a figurehead leader — a general who showed up for the public meetings but left everything to his underlings. Even when he said he learned of the computer snafus, he apparently failed to sound the alarm.

Bleak outlook  

Since Democratic lawmakers aren’t willing to ask the tough questions before the gubernatorial primary, and the governor has shown no eagerness to create a special panel to probe this scandal, we may never learn enough to reach a conclusion.

Even the DLS report is likely to be scrubbed of any finger-pointing at state leaders. That’s especially true if Brown wins the June 24 Democratic primary. Top Democrats in the legislature will circle the protective wagons around the presumptive governor.

What a mess.

We will glean quite a bit about the exchange’s IT failures from the competing lawsuits filed by Noridian and its prime subcontractor, EngagePoint. But that won’t lift the fog surrounding actions of healthcare exchange leaders, the governor and the lieutenant governor.

Sadly, this is one mystery that may never be solved.

Barry Rascovar’s compendium of columns can be found at www.politicalmaryland.com


About The Author

Len Lazarick


Len Lazarick was the founding editor and publisher of MarylandReporter.com and is currently the president of its nonprofit corporation and chairman of its board He was formerly the State House bureau chief of the daily Baltimore Examiner from its start in April 2006 to its demise in February 2009. He was a copy editor on the national desk of the Washington Post for eight years before that, and has spent decades covering Maryland politics and government.


  1. vtma

    The USA is now a police state. There will be a massive protest in Washington, DC
    starting May 16, 2014.

    We are past the point of no return and must move
    forward with an effort to save our nation, as there is no other choice. We are
    asking, pleading with you, and any others that have resources, national voices,
    email lists, blogs, FB, Twitter, to call for a non-violent American Spring May
    16, 2014 in Washington D.C. We must appeal to ten million and more American
    patriots to come and stay in Washington, D.C. to stop the White House and
    Congress from total destruction of the United States. It’s now or never. God
    help us.


  2. abby_adams

    “Nattering nabob of negativism”? While the rest of our august congress critters set on the sideline still singing the praises of Obamacare & the Md Health Exchange? I’d be delighted to have Harris back as my Congressman instead of she who suggests we have a National Park on the moon while serving as a talking head on the Sunday morning talk shows. Please we all know NO ONE will ever be nailed for this fiasco unless there is a change in Annapolis & I don’t see that coming anytime soon unless the taxpaying sheeple wake up.

  3. Frank_Van

    Mr. Rascobar, why describe Andy Harris’ effort as Republican Teaparty Grand standing??? Where are your “honest and upstanding” Democratic politiciens or citizens??? and their outrage and efforts??? You are throwing a gratuitous barb. I do not know Mr. Harris nor his politics, but it seems that at least he is trying something.
    Your comment is a great disservice to Maryland. While you proclaim it is a shame and there will like never be a thorough investigation, you make fun of the only person who made an effort. Is that how you describe yourself as a journalist?

  4. MoneyLaunderingNews

    isn’t it just too funny how all these health care websites in all these states are failling….hmmm …let’s see…maybe….JUST MAYBE….they never wanted this thing to work in the first place….hmmmmm 5-6 years down the drain. what is obamas legacy…hmmmmm…..A WHOLE LOT OF NOTHING! YOU LIE SIR!

  5. md observer

    DLS has the right people to identify how this happened. So does OLA. If Sharfstein is testifying under oath to tell the whole truth, then his testimony needs to be investigated after the truth comes out. Contractors are not the only ones that screwed up.

  6. Dale McNamee

    My wife’s been trying daily since December to get her health insurance coverage… Near the end of January, she was told that she had insurance through Blue Cross/Carefirst and given the monthly premium and the amount of the subsidy and was awaiting the materials, ID cards, etc. from BC/Carefirst. She called the exchange to inquire about where the materials were and told that she didn’t have coverage at all ! They didn’t want to look at the “reference number” that she had that stated that she had the insurance.

    By chance, if she gets the insurance, she’s not going to pay retroactively for something she didn’t have since January… Also, if she doesn’t get it by March 31st., why should she pay a penalty for not having it ? I’d like to know what use the penalties collected going to be used…

    It should be noted that my

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