Cover Oregon: Congress may have to do job Oregon Dems won’t

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

Cover Oregon is the state’s new government-run health insurance exchange. The exchange is designed to act as an internet portal to purchase medical insurance under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. All private medical insurance policies that choose to access Obama Care federal tax credits must be purchased through the state website. Unfortunately, the Cover Oregon website does not work. It has become “yet another” expensive example of a failed government effort to regulate the free market.

Oregon’s health insurance website is an idea that was backed and developed by Governor John Kitzhaber. He travelled to Washington seek-out federal grant funding to create a unique website portal for Oregon. He pronounced that Oregon’s new exchange would be a veritable poster child for all of the national health care exchanges.

Kitzhaber brought home a one million dollar federal grant to study the creation of a health insurance exchange, in September 2010. His subsequent requests and trips to the Nation’s Capitol resulted in seven additional grants, totaling more than $300 million.

In fact, Oregon has now received $304 million of federal taxpayer dollars to build, test and operate the Cover Oregon exchange. Each of the seven federal grants came with clear summaries describing how the funds were to be used, and detailing what must be accomplished with those tax dollars.

Four and one half years later, the Cover Oregon website portal still does not work. No Oregonian has been able to purchase a private health insurance policy, through the Cover Oregon website, since its roll-out last October 1st. In fact, the 35,000 plus Oregonians, who have successfully accessed private coverage under Obama Care, have all had their insurance applications processed using paper forms.

Oregon has hired some 400 employees, to “do by hand”, what the $300 million website was “supposed to do” electronically. Time is running out for many Oregonians to obtain appropriate health insurance. At this time, no date has been established when the multi-hundred million dollar Cover Oregon website will be functional. It is our understanding that tens of thousands application eligible Oregonians are still waiting to have their health insurance applications completed using the alternative paper process.

Governor Kitzhaber repeatedly claimed that he believed the project was a “go”, right up until its spectacular failure on October 1st. His assurances were made, even though the company that was hired to perform quality assurance repeated warned that the website was not ready, and would fail if rolled-out in October.

Moreover, Cover Oregon was designed and expected to be self-supporting once it was up and running. Federal funding for operation and maintenance of the website will cease in the near future. It is now very possible that the project will require outside funding because too few participants have been signed-up to support the costs of the program. It now appears that the Oregon taxpayers will be responsible for paying much of the ongoing operation and maintenance costs of Cover Oregon.

Cover Oregon’s two top executives have resigned, or stepped down. One has cooperated in investigative interviews to determine what went wrong. The other has remained unavailable for comment. The employees who are currently managing the effort generally contend that they were not there and really do not know what went wrong. The Governor has now commissioned a private company to perform a “quarter million dollar study” to determine why Cover Oregon failed. His agencies have promised in public testimony that the unedited findings of that determination will timely be made public.

To date, no one has stepped up to take responsibility for the failure, no one has been able to explain why it failed, and no one has accounted for how all that money was spent. Worse, Legislative leadership does not appear to want to know what happened.

On party line votes, the Democrats serving on the House Health Care Committee killed four amendments to House Bill 4154. Each of those amendments would have improved oversight and reformed failed features of Cover Oregon.

Specifically, the Committee majority voted down authorization for the Secretary of State to perform an “expedited audit” of the failed project. They rejected a requirement to “make public” all findings of any independent review. They refused a provision allowing Oregonians to receive federal subsidies, when purchasing health insurance outside of the exchange, and directly from private insurers. And they killed a provision that required Oregon legislators to purchase “their own” health insurance through the Cover Oregon exchange.

These are only a few of the reasons that I strongly support Congressman Greg Walden’s recent request for a federal audit. Walden joined several other Congressional leaders in requesting an audit of Cover Oregon by the federal Government General Accounting Office.

It is time for Oregonians, and all taxpayers, to understand what really happened. The Congressmen have asked the GAO to determine:

  • How the $300 million was spent,
  • What additional state and federal costs may have already  been incurred,
  • What further state and federal costs may be incurred in the future,
  • Whether the federal government has the capability to require the state to repay all, or any part, of the grant funding,

As Congressman Walden stated in his February 14th letter to GAO “The catastrophic breakdown of Cover Oregon is unacceptable, and taxpayers deserve accountability.” The people certainly are not receiving the answers needed to explain the ongoing fiscal disaster from either the Office of the Governor or from Legislative leadership. Ironically, it appears that Congress may be a better watchdog of the use of tax dollars in Oregon than our own state government.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls