Editorial: Cover Oregon bonuses are a painful necessity

Bonuses are usually awarded because of success, but at Cover Oregon, they will be awarded because of failure.

The health insurance website never worked, but the agency still has a job to do in transitioning to the federal exchange. It still needs staffers with expertise in health care law and technology.

Trouble is, staffers with those skills are leaving.

To hold on to remaining staff, the agency has decided to give retention bonuses of at least two weeks’ pay to those who stay through next March 15. More valuable staffers can get more: 21 are eligible for one month’s pay, 15 for two months’ pay, and two will qualify for three months’ pay.

The total amount would be $650,000 if everyone stayed and collected the bonuses. It’s a big number, even though it pales in comparison to the $250 million the agency wasted, not to mention the still-to-be-calculated costs of litigation to come.

Clyde Hamstreet took over as interim CEO after the extent of the fiasco became apparent and predecessors departed. Since April, a combination of layoffs and voluntary resignations has reduced the staff from 190 to 163.

Hamstreet told the board of directors recently that departing staff had taken key skills out the door, skills “that are not easily replaced both in IT and in health care laws and regulations.” To complete the necessary work for 2014 and make the transition to the federal exchange, Cover Oregon “cannot afford to keep losing valuable employees,” he wrote.

It’s important to recognize that the employees getting these bonuses have valuable skills and likely had little to do with the failure, which appears to have been orchestrated at the top. And as a practical matter, bonuses may be the best way to make staying attractive enough to allow essential tasks to be accomplished.

Still, it’s galling to think we must reward anyone involved in this disaster.

But there’s no choice. Taxpayers are trapped.

Failure has a steep price tag.