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GOP intensifies effort highlighting health care woes; state exchange troubles provide fodder

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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 enrolment 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 cancelled 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 enrolment 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 enrolment 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.

The state exchange "has been such a technological failure that even now, months after the start of the open enrolment period, the site is unable to enrol anyone," Walden and Upton wrote.

As of January, 33,808 had signed up for health insurance in Oregon, nowhere near the projected goal of 146,940.

Republicans and outside groups have seized on problems with the law to pummel Democrats who voted for "Obamacare," as the GOP looks to increase its majority in the House and grab control of the Senate. In Oregon, first-term Sen. Jeff Merkley has defended the law at town halls and is certain to face more challenges on the issue. He has said he is working on legislation to fix the law.

His likely Republican opponent is Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon who has been critical of "Obamacare."

In the next eight months before the election, Republicans who call the shots in the House will cast a harsh spotlight on the law through hearings and narrowly focused legislation designed to divide Democrats. The GOP has done it this year with bills requiring the Obama administration to report weekly on how many Americans have signed up for health care coverage and a measure bolting new security requirements on the law.

One bill drew the support of 33 Democrats; the other attracted 67 Democrats who bucked the administration.

Last year, House Republicans voted more than 40 times to repeal, replace or gut the law, and strong GOP opposition to "Obamacare" precipitated the 16-day partial government shutdown last fall that was a political blow to Republicans.

Since recovered, Republicans say privately they are unlikely to push for full repeal in light of the law's popular elements, such as insurance for individuals even with an existing condition and allowing children to remain on their parents' plans until age 26. Also, Republicans have been unable to unify around an alternative to health care plan.

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