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US agency to probe problems with state health exchanges

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This screen image shows the website for Maryland's online health care exchange. 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 traditionall

This screen image shows the website for Maryland’s online health care exchange. 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.

Associated Press

The politics will play out where they may, good or bad. That doesn’t mean you don’t ask questions. We need to get answers. – Sen. Ron Wyden

The investigative arm of Congress on Wednesday agreed to look into problems with state health exchange websites around the country.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office accepted an initial request from a group of House Republicans seeking an audit on how $304 million in federal grants were spent on the Cover Oregon website, which has yet to enroll a single person online without special assistance.

The agency said due to similar requests from several members of Congress and congressional committees related to the rollout of online health care exchanges, it would broaden the investigation, and issue several separate reports on its findings.

GAO spokesman Charles Young said just which states will be included with Oregon will be determined as the investigation goes forward.

But 14 states and the District of Columbia opted to create their own exchanges and accepted federal funding to do so.

Republicans have been stepping up their attacks on troubled health exchanges during this election year, but Rep. Greg. Walden, R-Ore., said it was a non-partisan issue.

He noted Oregon Democrats Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Jeff Merkley made their own requests for the GAO to investigate a day after Walden, House Committee on Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan and Reps. Joe Pitts and Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania filed theirs last month.

"The politics will play out where they may, good or bad," Walden said. "That doesn't mean you don't ask questions. We need to get answers."

He noted the probe of state websites would "piggyback nicely" on another GAO look at the federal health exchange website, which has already begun.

Separately, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has asked for an inspector general's investigation into problems with the rollout of the health care law.

Some of the state exchanges have outperformed the federal exchange website, but others have trailed behind and faced significant challenges, including expensive fixes to glitches and lower projected enrollments.

In addition to Oregon, where residents on their own still can't sign up for coverage in one sitting, the exchanges in Maryland, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Minnesota have faced major problems.

Cover Oregon's online enrollment system was supposed to launch in October, allowing individuals and small businesses to compare insurance plans and qualify for federal tax credits to subsidize the premiums. It wasn't ready, however, forcing people to fill out a lengthy paper application that would have to be processed by hand. Pieces of the website are now working and some portions of the processing are automated, but significant problems still exist.

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