PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber was vague Thursday when asked when Cover Oregon’s multimillion dollar health insurance exchange would be able to enroll Oregonians online.
“I can’t give you a date, I don’t have a date,” Kitzhaber said at a news conference at the Oregon Health and Science University Richmond Clinic in Southeast Portland. “I’m not engrossed into the day-to-day part of [that].”
The governor deferred to Cover Oregon interim Executive Director Dr. Bruce Goldberg,
“We’ve had multiple dates in the past that have come and gone, and I don’t think they’ve served any of us any purpose,” Goldberg said.
Goldberg — Oregon Health Authority (OHA) director, who took over leadership of Cover Oregon from Rocky King — noted that the agency had reduced the number of “critical issues” with the website from 45 down to 30.
“Most of those 30 have gone through several cycles of testing and re-testing,” Goldberg said. “And when they’re all finished through the testing, and they’re all approved, we anticipate that the website will be operational. It’s not a question of an exact date.”
The governor emphasized that the exchange had enrolled 55,000 people to date. Of those, 20,000 were enrolled in private insurance and 35,000 in the Oregon Health Plan (OHP), the state’s version of Medicaid. Another 115,000 were directly enrolled into the OHP in a process that had bypassed Cover Oregon.
“Cover Oregon isn’t a failure,” Kitzhaber alleged. “We’ve had real problems with the website. I think it’s important to differentiate between the website and Cover Oregon.”
Both Goldberg and Kitzhaber added that they are in constant communication with tech giant Oracle, which designed the website. Oracle has reportedly brought in several experts to troubleshoot the problems, but thus far with no success. Kitzhaber announced today that the state signed a contract with payment processing company First Data to do an independent assessment of the Cover Oregon rollout. He refused to comment on whether the state plans to sue Oracle.
“I’m not going to prejudge the independent investigation,” Kitzhaber said. “We’ll wait and see what the report shows.”
“I can tell you indeed that I am pushing Oracle. We’re all working as hard and as quickly as we can to get this resolved.”
Since launching Oct. 1, Cover Oregon has yet to enroll anyone online, and all applications are being processed by hand by hundreds of temporary employees. The agency has spent $4 million on those additional personnel. The manual process has been cumbersome, with several instances in which an application has been sent to the wrong address. Furthermore, many of the handwritten applications have errors, requiring staff to follow up with applicants, which further delays their processing.
“We’ve got a paper process that’s imperfect; it’s not a substitute for the electronic enrollment process,” Kitzhaber said.
The agency has also had major leadership struggles to boot. King took medical leave Dec. 2, and then announced his resignation Jan. 1. Carolyn Lawson, the OHA chief information officer who oversaw most of the exchange’s initial development, resigned Dec. 19.
“We’ve made the appropriate management changes at Cover Oregon,” Kitzhaber said bluntly.
The agency is currently working with people who have signed up for health insurance directly with a provider to ensure they can still get their tax credit for January. Meanwhile, Goldberg said he is open to alternatives for online enrollment, but believes that it would be difficult to enact any substantial changes now.
“I think it’s prudent management to consider alternatives. I’ve had a couple of people come in and look at (if it) was possible to connect to other operating websites, whether that be a federal site or a state site. Given some of the timeframes that we’re working on, I think it’s difficult to have that happen during open enrollment.”
Despite all the glitches, Kitzhaber remains optimistic.
“I’m very, very pleased with where we are today. Do we still have problems? Yes. But I think we are reducing them in size and scope.”
— Faris Tanyos