Rascovar: Stonewalling Md. Health Exchange Probe - Southern Maryland Headline News

Rascovar: Stonewalling Md. Health Exchange Probe

Commentary by Barry Rascovar, for MarylandReporter.com

The Maryland General Assembly concludes its 2014 session Monday in good shape – except for one monumental omission: the mystery surrounding Maryland’s fatally flawed health exchange, which has squandered uncounted tens of millions of dollars.

It’s now clear that both Gov. Martin O’Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown are content to stonewall and impede any detailed investigation of what went wrong in setting up the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange until well after the June 24 primary election.

Is there a cover-up going on?

Judge for yourself.

On Thursday, the state’s legislative auditor told lawmakers he had been thwarted in his attempt to conduct a meaningful review of the health exchange.

Because the exchange’s leaders only gave state auditors what was available to the public, ”We don’t have the complete story,” said the chief auditor, Thomas Barnickel III. “There’s a lot we don’t know.”

Heavily Redacted

The documents auditors received were heavily redacted — a sure sign things are being hidden from view.

It’s also not in line with accepted auditing practices of state government agencies.

But when the governor and lieutenant governor want to make sure no one gets to the bottom of this historic debacle any time soon, the administration knows how to obfuscate.

No sign of Rebecca Pearce

For instance, the exchange gave auditors 600 emails to or from Health Secretary Josh Sharfstein — the administration’s spokesman on this issue – but nary a single email involving Rebecca Pearce, who ran the troubled exchange until December.

Could such an astounding omission have been accidental?

The redactions were so numerous in the 14,500 documents that auditors couldn’t determine if the controversial contract awards were done legally or appropriately.

Who hired the contractor?

Auditors also couldn’t figure out how the exchange went about selecting the vendor who screwed up the exchange’s computer program — Noridian of North Dakota – or how in the world the exchange opted to buy off-the-shelf software — as opposed to customized software — from IBM.

This software proved incapable of doing the job.

Auditors did learn from documents there was confusion within the exchange over points of contact, meeting schedules, lack of a program manager and even a lack of details about the project plan.

They made one definitive finding: The exchange conducted no performance testing whatsoever.

Is it any wonder this lemon of a software program crashed on Day One and has yet to fully recover?

Limited document release

Exchange leaders also saw to it that auditors didn’t get enough information to figure out who made those horrendously poor decisions, who was really in charge and who should be held to account for this debacle.

Democratic leaders in the legislature aren’t in any hurry, either, to pin some of the blame on Brown because that would hurt his campaign for governor.

So no one became indignant when it became clear last Thursday at a hearing in Annapolis that the legislature’s own auditors had been stonewalled.

Earlier in the week, O’Malley and Brown laid out their own line of attack: We’re not at fault because it’s the evil contractors who messed up.

Who hired the contractors?

And who, exactly, hired those contractors? Aren’t those the ones who ought to be fingered?

What was Brown’s role as co-chair of the exchange’s oversight committee?

Didn’t he have to approve those contracts? Or was he only a figurehead?

It’s clear now the prime contractor never should have been chosen in the first place. Is that the contractor’s fault or the O’Malley-Brown administration’s?

What genius decided to launch the state’s most complex and expensive IT project with off-the-shelf software?

Is it IBM’s fault the O’Malley-Brown administration decided to take the cheaper route and ended up with a turkey that was never designed for the tasks assigned it by the exchange?

Bait-and-switch tactic

Is it Noridian’s fault the O’Malley-Brown administration pulled a bait-and-switch?

Exchange leaders signed a fixed-price contract with Noridian that included 261 requirements for the software program – and then later added 227 new requirements, changed 28 of the original requirements and dropped 73 of the mandates Noridian had bid on.

O’Malley seems content to blame IBM for what went wrong. Yes, IBM made the off-the-shelf software, but it was never tailored for the complicated interfaces envisioned by the IT gurus in Maryland government. Yet IBM is now the governor’s fall guy.

But IBM is pushing back. The computer giant says it went the extra mile to fit a round peg into a square hole, but that it couldn’t “overcome the state’s failure to properly manage the implementation of the exchange.”

We may never know if that’s true because O’Malley won’t launch an impartial investigation. Indeed, he’s not launching any investigation into how potentially hundreds of millions of tax dollars were wasted.

This is the guy who wants to run for president?

Permanent stain?

What an unmitigated calamity. No authority figure in state government wants to get to the bottom of this disgrace. No public group is pressing for action, either.

We’re left with an appalling mess.

The lack of accountability, transparency and responsibility — if not remedied – will become a permanent stain on the record of O’Malley and Brown. History will not remember this episode kindly.

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