Lawmakers push probes of two state Obamacare exchanges

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Members of Congress want to know how Obamacare exchanges in Oregon and Maryland could have spent hundreds of millions in federal money on websites that don’t work.

“The catastrophic breakdown of Cover Oregon is unacceptable and taxpayers deserve accountability,” House Energy and Commerce Committee leadership wrote to the General Accountability Office Thursday.

Meanwhile, Maryland Rep. Andy Harris and Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, both Republicans, addressed their letter on the Maryland Obamacare exchange to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) inspector general, requesting an immediate “formal investigation into the flagrant waste and abuse of taxpayer monies.”

Oregon and Maryland were among Obamacare’s earliest adopters but have both struggled to get their marketplaces off the ground at all. Oregon was unable to enroll a single person for months after its launch, and the website still doesn’t support online enrollment. Reports have emerged that soon a website portal may be operating only for insurance brokers and agents.

While Oregon’s enrollment has risen given a switch to paper applications and boosted temporary employees to process them, its tech issues are still being sorted out. In addition to the Energy and Commerce Committee’s request for a probe, state lawmakers charged with overseeing the exchange have accused exchange officials of lying to both the state legislature and federal officials about the site’s status.

Former state Rep. Patrick Sheehan, who served on the legislature’s joint IT oversight committee, said he believes Cover Oregon officials created “dummy” web pages to show fake progress to federal employees. Because Oregon received several early innovator grants for their exchange, federal officials were required to check in on the website’s progress, but despite glowing reports, the exchange never had the functionality it claimed. (RELATED: Ex-lawmaker accuses Oregon Obamacare exchange of creating fake site)

Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden, who spearheaded the Energy and Commerce Committee’s GAO request, believes a GAO probe is “likely,” a spokesman told CNBC, because GAO staff worked with the committee on the letter’s wording. Walden’s office believes their letter is the first request by a U.S. congressmen for an investigation into a state-run Obamacare exchange.

Maryland’s request to the HHS inspector general, then, would be a close second. Though the Maryland Health Connection website is functioning at a marginally higher level than Cover Oregon, since crashing on its launch day, the exchange has been plagued with a host of technical problems that put HealthCare.gov’s glitches to shame.

Harris and Kingston, both members of the House Appropriations Committee and subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, lambasted the $261 million cost of the nonfunctional exchange — all but $47 million will be paid by federal taxpayers — and noted that state officials continued working on the website despite serious concerns presented by private consultants.

“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 public,” the congressmen charged.

While Oregon’s and Maryland’s exchanges are still struggling to get by through March 31, lucky Massachusetts received a three-month federal extension Thursday. Its exchange will support enrollment through June 30. (RELATED: Massachusetts Obamacare exchange granted federal extension as director gently weeps

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Sarah Hurtubise