Cover Oregon interim director testifies in Salem

By Elon Glucklich The Bulletin

Cover Oregon officials continue to shore up problems with the state’s glitch-ridden health care exchange website and hope to have it close to full functionality in the next month.

But key issues with the Cover Oregon website persist more than three months after the site was supposed to launch without problems. Several state legislators, including a Bend lawmaker, blasted Cover Oregon’s management and missed deadlines during a pair of hearings with legislative committees Wednesday.

“It’s no secret to anybody in this room or in this state that we do not have a fully functioning website today,” Bruce Goldberg, Cover Oregon’s interim director, told lawmakers. “This system is not where we want it to be.”

Cover Oregon information technology staff have been working with Oracle, the firm contracted to set up the exchange, and have lowered the number of critical website errors from 48 in early December to 13 today, Goldberg said.

Meanwhile, the state is withholding more than $20 million owed to Oracle until all the problems are fixed, he said. Oracle has been paid $92 million — so far — to develop the website.

Users are still unable to create and manage their own accounts through the Cover Oregon website, meanwhile. Customers have to call in to Cover Oregon to shop for plans and ultimately select a health insurance policy.

If the website isn’t functioning more smoothly by March, Cover Oregon officials may have to scrap part or all of its Web portal, relying on systems designed by other states or the federal government.

Still, Goldberg said the site has improved considerably. Two months after a health care research firm ranked Oregon last in enrollment among the 14 state-run exchanges, more than 65,000 people have enrolled through Cover Oregon, while an additional 23,000 have selected private plans.

But some lawmakers questioned why the state continues to pay Oracle, accused by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle of botching numerous aspects of the Cover Oregon website. Gov. John Kitzhaber this month announced an independent investigation into the website’s problems.

During an afternoon hearing between Cover Oregon officials and a House health care committee, Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, said the state health care exchange has lost credibility with the public.

“I’ve lost all faith in Cover Oregon, lost all faith in Oregon’s ability to fix the website, and I don’t believe it’s going to happen today, tomorrow or six months from now,” Conger said.

“People are not going to sign up because they don’t believe it’s going to work. Or they believe their information will not be private or believe that they’re signing up for insurance but find out they’re not covered … All of these things lead one to the conclusion, that it’s time to throw in the towel.”

In an earlier hearing, Rep. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, questioned if the state would be better off cutting its losses with Cover Oregon and jumping into the federal health care exchange, which administers the Affordable Care Act for the 36 states without state exchanges.

Goldberg said scrapping the site at this point would be premature.

“We certainly made a large investment,” he said. “If (the website) becomes operational in the next month, we’ll have a system that will be able to enroll people … I think the next month will, in essence, tell us whether or not we’re at the point where we need to turn to contingency plans.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7820, eglucklich@bendbulletin.com