Gov. Kitzhaber is responsible for Cover Oregon failure

Dan Lucas_July 2012_BW

by Dan Lucas

Cover Oregon, Oregon’s attempt at a health insurance exchange, has been a disaster. It didn’t start out that way — it started full of promise and high expectations. Back in 2011 Gov. Kitzhaber spoke of the support from the Obama administration for Oregon to become a pioneer in healthcare reform, “We have great support with this administration, and deep support within [the Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services]. Their inclination right now would be to give us whatever flexibility we need.”

Gov. Kitzhaber also spoke in 2011 on the importance of Oregon developing its own health insurance exchange rather than using the federal exchange, “A local Exchange accountable to Oregonians — not the federal government – offers choice competition, value, and transparency,” and “A local Exchange established by and accountable to Oregonians and not the federal government is vital to bringing quality, affordable health care to more than 350,000 Oregonians.”

The Associated Press noted in November 2013 that “Oregon officials set out to build one of the biggest and best in the nation — a model that other states would want to copy.” That same AP article went on to report “But more than a month after Cover Oregon’s online enrollment was supposed to launch, reality is lagging far behind Gov. John Kitzhaber’s grand ideas. The online system still doesn’t work, and the exchange has yet to enroll a single person in health insurance.”

Cover Oregon became a national embarrassment. An embarrassment that ended up costing taxpayers a quarter of a billion dollars, and one where Oregon ultimately had to admit defeat and give up on Gov. Kitzhaber’s vision of “a local Exchange accountable to Oregonians.” The LA Times reported back in April “Oregon officials voted unanimously Friday to jettison the state’s disastrous health insurance exchange and switch to the federal system, admitting disappointment and defeat in an arena where the state had been a trailblazer.”

Gov. Kitzhaber made national news for the Cover Oregon fiasco and his attempts to run from the issue, including the fact that he ignored warnings about Cover Oregon problems almost a year before its failed launch. Gov. Kitzhaber and his subordinates also ignored the first review of Cover Oregon from quality-assurance contractor Maximus – with red flags going back to 2011.

There are now at least four different federal investigations into the Cover Oregon fiasco: by the FBI, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the U.S. House oversight committee. There have been massive sackings and resignations from the leadership of Cover Oregon, including Carolyn Lawson, Rocky King, Dr. Bruce Goldberg, Aaron Karjala and Triz delaRosa.

The buck stops here. Gov. Kitzhaber’s fingerprints are all over the Cover Oregon failure. In fact, his hands are still on the steering wheel! He is the head of the executive branch that was charged with implementing Cover Oregon. The people in charge of the agencies who were building Cover Oregon were appointed by the governor, including King and Goldberg. The Chair of the Cover Oregon Board is still Liz Baxter. Gov. Kitzhaber nominated Liz Baxter to the Cover Oregon Board back in August 2011. Liz Baxter came up out of the organization Kitzhaber founded in 2006, the Archimedes Movement/We Can Do Better — a progressive organization advocating for health care reform.

Gov. Kitzhaber, largely aided by the Oregon media, with the notable exception of KATU, has attempted to avoid taking responsibility for the Cover Oregon disaster. But this buck stops firmly at the desk of Gov. John Kitzhaber.

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