Woes with Obamacare in states like Maryland, Oregon give Republicans election ammunition

By Donna Cassata

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Feb. 24 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

In this Oct. 1, 2013 file photo, Cover Oregon executive director Rocky King speaks during the rollout of Oregon's health insurance exchange in Portland, Ore. With all the problems facing the rollout of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, nowhere is the situation worse or more surprising than in Oregon.

Don Ryan, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — House Republicans intent on highlighting the woes of President Barack Obama's health care law need to look no further than their own back yards, some of which are traditionally liberal strongholds.

Maryland's online health care exchange has been plagued by computer glitches since its rollout last year, reflected in abysmal enrollment numbers well below projections through January. The state's lone Republican in Congress, Rep. Andy Harris, has asked the inspector general of the federal Health and Human Services Department to investigate.

In Oregon, the online portal has struggled to sign up a single individual, and Republican Rep. Greg Walden recently sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office pressing for an inquiry. Officials in both states insist they are working to fix the problems.

"Everybody's pointing fingers at everyone else, so we have no idea why this went wrong," Harris, who was an anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital for 30 years, said in a recent interview.

Unified in their opposition to the law, Republicans have been relentless in focusing on its problems, from complaints of canceled policies to higher insurance premiums and Obama's unilateral decision to delay for two years the requirement that small businesses cover employees.

The GOP effort has intensified this election year as Republicans look to capitalize on dissatisfaction with the law, turning voter dismay into November victories. The ill effect of "Obamacare" is the GOP's constant refrain.

Nearly 3.3 million Americans have enrolled through the federal and state marketplaces as the federal online site worked out the problems of its disastrous rollout, a recent sign of promise for the 4-year-old law.

A silver lining for Democrats in the recent enrollment numbers is the actual sign-ups exceeding projected totals in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Michigan and Colorado, according to the January figures. Three of those states have Senate Democrats who voted for the law and now face re-election — Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire and Mark Udall in Colorado.

In Michigan, Democratic Rep. Gary Peters is trying to win the open seat currently held by retiring Democratic Sen. Carl Levin.

But local woes have provided fodder for some Republicans, like Harris and Walden, as the GOP looks to maintain its steady drumbeat of criticism.

Maryland is one of 14 states that chose to run its own exchange, but it has been beset by technological problems, reports of ignored warnings before its start Oct. 1 and a price tag that could exceed $250 million in state and federal dollars. Even Democratic officials have raised the possibility of perhaps abandoning the state operation and switching to the federal online site to sign up individuals.

In the meantime, Harris and Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., two members of the House Appropriations Committee, wrote to HHS Inspector General Daniel Levinson on Feb. 12 requesting an investigation "into the flagrant waste and abuse of taxpayer monies that were spent and are continuing to be spent for the creation of the Maryland health insurance exchange and online marketplace."

As of January, the most recent enrollment numbers show Maryland signed up 29,059, far fewer than its target of 93,000.

In Oregon, the state exchange website known as Cover Oregon is still plagued with problems, with individuals unable to compare policies and sign up. More than $300 million in federal grants to the state have gone to the website and its future is in doubt.

Walden, who chairs the committee to elect Republicans to the House, along with Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, sent a letter Feb. 12 to the GAO seeking an investigation.

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