By Lauren Dake

The Bulletin

PORTLAND — Gov. John Kitzhaber said Thursday the state will use an outside firm to examine the botched Cover Oregon rollout with the hope of understanding why the state’s health insurance exchange website has yet to enroll anyone three months after it was expected to launch.

In a press conference in Portland, Kitzhaber struck an optimistic tone despite the troubles, and highlighted the number of people who are now insured despite the messy rollout. He strived to differentiate between the website and the exchange, noting it was only the website that is failing.

The state announced earlier this week that 170,000 people have been enrolled in coverage.

“To put this in perspective, a year ago the problem was 170,000 people who didn’t have any idea or hope of getting insurance coverage,” Kitzhaber said.

However, only a small fraction enrolled using the state’s exchange. About 20,000 applicants enrolled in a private plan through the state’s exchange. Another 55,000 people applied through the exchange and were enrolled in the Oregon Health Plan.

The rest applied directly to the state’s health authority and were also enrolled in the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s version of Medicaid.

The state has had to hire hundreds of people to process paper applications. They have set up call centers that are running close to 24 hours a day. Oregon has been blasted in the national media for having one of the worst exchanges.

To find out what went wrong, the state will fork over $228,000 to First Data Government Solutions to examine, among other issues, the state’s decision to hire Oracle Corp., the website’s main contractor. The state has been withholding millions of dollars in payments to Oracle Corp.

In addition, Bruce Goldberg, the interim director of the exchange, told the Cover Oregon Board on Thursday afternoon that officials are working on contingency plans if the website continues not to function. Although Goldberg said he’s hopeful the website will eventually work, the state has hired a consultant to oversee the technical work being done and to advise whether other options could be necessary. Those could include looking at technology other states or the federal government are using or continuing in a hybrid environment, with part paper and part online enrollment, Goldberg said.

“(We are) looking at alternatives into the future should we not be able to have a website that is operational over the next couple of months. It’s only prudent business to look at other alternatives,” Goldberg told the Cover Oregon Board.

Goldberg said every day about 1,000 new applications come in and within a week Cover Oregon should have worked through the backlog of 7,000 to 8,000 applications. Shortly, the interim director said, the goal is to have an application form online that prevents people from submitting an application until it’s complete.

Many people have voiced frustration over not knowing where they are in the process. Goldberg said there is a lag time between when insurance carriers get the information and then respond to individuals.

“It is creating some periods of time where there is uncertainty. We’re trying to do a better job letting people know where they are,” he said.

There are also stories of success. Elizabeth Littlefield, a 46-year-old Montessori teacher in Bend, said in an interview that she was able to successfully enroll in the exchange.

Littlefield has rheumatoid arthritis and at times in the past has had plans with premiums as high as $600 a month.

“You carry this burden by having a pre-existing condition and it’s not like something you can avoid,” Littlefield said.

She now has a plan that costs about $100 a month, with a $25 copay.

“It’s a huge relief … I was paying for health insurance over other important things in my life,” she said.

— Reporter: 541-554-1162,