By Jonathan Easley - 02/17/14 12:00 PM EST
Republicans are launching investigations into three state-run ObamaCare exchanges that are failing disastrously.
Lawmakers are setting their sites on exchanges in Oregon, Maryland and Massachusetts, where Democratic governors embraced the healthcare law, and are demanding to know why their expensive online portals remain useless more than four months after launch.
“The catastrophic breakdown of Cover Oregon is unacceptable, and taxpayers deserve accountability,” wrote the group of lawmakers led by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.).
The scrutiny of the state enrollment portals is a shift from October, when the federal site, HealthCare.gov, was out of service but state-run exchanges in California, New York and even red Kentucky appeared to be humming along.
But several states are having major problems with their ObamaCare sites.
In Oregon, not even one person has yet to enroll online, leaving the state completely reliant on paper applications.
Walden and the other lawmakers are laying the groundwork to claw-back some of the state’s $304 million in grants if Oregon decides to abandon its state-run exchange and join the federal system.
“With the March 31 deadline for open enrollment fast approaching, the state of Oregon will need to make a decision on the fate of Cover Oregon soon,” the letter to the GAO reads. “The catastrophic breakdown of Cover Oregon is unacceptable, and taxpayers deserve accountability.”
Despite the site problems, Oregon is more than halfway to its Congressional Budget Office estimate of having 64,000 enrollees by the end of March, according to an Avalere Health analysis.
Gov. John Kitzhaber (D-Ore.) told The Hill in an email that covering Oregonians would remain his focus.
“Congress will do what Congress will do just so long as it does not slow down the process of getting Oregonians healthcare,” he said. “Already more than 225,000 Oregonians have enrolled in quality, affordable coverage, including more than 35,000 in private insurance plans.”
The governor’s office noted that it’s only the consumer portal that isn’t functioning properly, and said the state is “using large parts of the technology we purchased to calculate what people are eligible for, help them get access to financial assistance, and service their accounts.”
The website problems run deeper in Maryland, where state officials have been debating for months whether to abandon its faltering state-run exchange in favor of HealthCare.gov.
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who is mulling a run for the White House in 2016, will have to answer to Reps. Andy Harris (R-Md.) and Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who on Wednesday sent a letter to Health and Human Services Inspector General (IG) Daniel Levinson asking for an investigation into Maryland’s exchange.
“By the end of the year, over $100 million federal dollars will have been spent on a project that should have cost much less, and doesn’t work,” they wrote. “As a result of the fact that Maryland appears willing to continue to waste tens of millions of more federal dollars, we ask that the investigation start immediately.”
Harris and Kingston accused state lawmakers and administration officials of ignoring warnings from auditors that Maryland site suffered from critical flaws and wouldn’t be ready to launch.
“Despite all of these warning signs, Maryland chose to continue to waste and abuse federal taxpayer money by opening up what they knew was a flawed exchange to the pubic,” they wrote. “Subsequent to the disastrous rollout, additional federal dollars continue to be spent attempting to fix what … might not even be fixable.”
Harris and Kingston also asked the IG to determine whether federal funds could be recouped on the project. Maryland has significantly underperformed its enrollment goals, signing up only 29,000 of the 77,600 that had been expected for the state by the end of March, according to Avalere.
A spokesman for O’Malley did not return a request for comment.
And Massachusetts, which was once the model for state-run healthcare exchanges, presently has the worst enrollment percentage in the country, having signed-up only 8,100, or 17 percent, of its expected total for 2014, according to Avalere.
The state’s healthcare exchange worked fine until it had to comply with the new healthcare law. Since October, the site has suffered frequent crashes and load problems.
The Boston Globe reported on Thursday that the state’s exchange director, Jean Yang, was reduced to tears at a board meeting while discussing the work her agency has done to overcome the challenges.
“These people came here to lead and innovate, and instead, they’re doing manual workarounds, and they are embarrassed to tell friends and family that they work for the Health Connector,” Yang said, according to the Globe.
“We have to work harder,” she said. “That means I need tell the staff members they’re not doing a good enough job, and I’m telling them that, even though they have been doing this tirelessly for months, and they’re exhausted.”
Yang said the state officials are working through a stack of 50,000 paper applications, each of which takes about two hours to process.
An official at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services told The Hill on Friday that the agency has extended a three-month waiver for Massachusetts that would allow it to continue enrolling those who had coverage from the previous exchange and are transferring to a new Connector plan.
Following the example of Democratic lawmakers in Washington, state officials in Oregon, Maryland and Massachusetts are standing behind the healthcare law in concept but are lashing out about the rollout.
“No one is angrier than I am about the issues with CoverOregon,” Kitzhaber said. “No one wants to get to the bottom of this more than I do. We do already have new CoverOregon leadership in place. And I won't hesitate to take further action to make this right. That's why I called in First Data to do an independent review of what went wrong and how.”