Several weeks ago, we noted the litany of problems occurring with the dysfunctional Maryland online state health exchange, which crashed almost immediately after it launched and has limped along ever since.

Yesterday, after spending at least $125.5 million on its design and implementation, the Washington Post reported Maryland state officials have deemed the site “broken beyond repair,” and will scrap the entire project.

The saga that was the Maryland state health exchange fiasco is one fully deserving of the infamous “gate” suffix. The Washington Post ran a thoroughly researched piece at the end of February illustrating the timeline of events.

For more than a year, high-level Maryland state officials knew that the site was riddled with extensive problems, but little was done in the way of substantive improvement.

At the exchange’s temporary offices in north Baltimore during the fall of 2012, no one could produce for BerryDunn standard project plans showing a timeline and checklist for how the main IT contractor, from Fargo, N.D., would get the job done. The exchange’s staff, then just seven full-time state employees and borrowed ones from other agencies, “may not be sufficient to complete the work,” BerryDunn said in a PowerPoint presentation delivered to senior state officials in December. Five of the presentation’s slides began with: “There is a risk . . .”

One proved particularly prescient: Maryland might build all of the components of its health-insurance exchange and then put them together and find out they do not work, the presenters said. It was a serious risk, because the state also did not appear to be leaving itself with enough time to “complete, verify and test all system components before go-live.” [Emphasis Added]

Despite numerous clear warnings from outside consultants who attempted to navigate the site prior to launch, the inability of Maryland’s leadership to recognize or accept the impending catastrophic failure seemed to stem from the political and monetary ramifications that would accompany such a recognition. For Lt. Governor Anthony Brown, who was the highest level elected official in charge of the exchange, the appearance of an effective exchange was particularly important.

The success of the exchange was also becoming freighted with political implications as Brown launched his campaign for governor. In an early-morning e-mail on Sept. 23, Sharfstein wrote to Pearce, under a subject line “from today’s [Baltimore] Sun.”

He pasted in a line from U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s endorsement of the lieutenant governor the day before: “While we’re fighting to save Obamacare, we know that in Maryland we have a health exchange that’s ready to go because of Anthony Brown,” the Maryland Democrat said.

[The exchange leader] Pearce forwarded the e-mail to the heads of Noridian and EngagePoint, adding one line: “It’s time to get this right. Now. Period.”

But Maryland officials never got it right. What’s more, they knew it wasn’t right at the highest level.

On a conference call at the start of the final week of September, senior aides gave [Governor] O’Malley a high-level summary of expected troubles with the exchange.

The Web site would not allow some people to check for subsidies or to select plans, but everyone should at least be able to log on, he was told, according to several aides.

The governor ended the call, said John Griffin, his chief of staff, saying the state should “move forward.”

But two days later, Griffin requested that a roomful of aides to the governor and Brown vote on whether to proceed. Most gave the Oct. 1 launch a green light. The next day, O’Malley smiled as Obama visited Prince George’s County and praised state leaders for being ready to roll. [Emphasis Added]

“Ready to roll” is hardly how I’d characterize a $100 million site that merely should be able to log people on, to say nothing of allowing them to navigate it. But perhaps that’s how things work in Maryland.

To be sure, this is not simply a state issue. Indeed, Maryland had planned to use quite a bit of federal tax dollars to set up its dismal exchange.

Before the launch, the state had allocated about $100 million in federal money for the construction of its exchange, and, according to one estimate, it has spent tens of millions more since Oct. 1. It is unclear how much of the added costs federal officials will agree to cover. [Emphasis Added]

My advice to the federal government: don’t give them a penny. Maryland’s elected officials willfully ignored clear evidence that their site would be broken at almost every step of the process, and now the costs of that negligence are adding up.

They wasted hundreds of millions of Maryland taxpayer dollars to build a site that is utterly useless. It’s not yet clear how much federal money will go to fund the calculated disaster, but they shouldn’t be allowed a single cent.


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