Oregon, a state of 4 million people at the forefront of “progressive” health reform, isn’t being touted by liberals these days as a model. That’s because Cover Oregon, its state-run health-care exchange, is the worst in the country, so bad that officials there may decide soon to unplug it and hook up to the faltering federal exchange.
How did it happen? The Oregonian, the largest newspaper in the state, did a public service Sunday detailing through a review of state e-mails how all the warnings about the site’s inadequacies were ignored. “Among those who raised the alarm were technology experts from the state Department of Administrative Services and the Legislative Fiscal Office. Also issuing repeated warnings was Maximus, a Virginia company hired to exercise independent oversight,” the paper reported. But all were ignored. Things got so bad that Ying Kwong, a technology analyst working for the state, talked about going to Oregon’s Department of Justice to block the exchange from going live. “How can the state conduct business like this?” he asked in an e-mail.
Kwong compared the relentless advance of the exchange website to the monster in the sci-fi movie classic The Blob. The Oregonian reported that Cover Oregon “seemingly couldn’t be stopped due to its amorphous shape and political momentum.” Kwong wrote that “you simply don’t know how to shoot this beast, because it does not have a known anatomy with the normal vital organs that make it tick.”
Democratic governor John Kitzhaber, himself a physician, admits he was “entirely outside the loop” on development of the $160 million website. He’s earned widespread ridicule for his lax management as he prepares to run for reelection. The Oregonain reports that some of his officials actively tried to squelch internal critics who warned the website was doomed: “The Oregon Health Authority last January withheld payment from the company hired to monitor the project, claiming its persistent criticism was inaccurate and inflammatory.” Just two months later, in March 2013, Rocky King, Cover Oregon’s executive director told the Oregonian he was constantly being asked by legislators “will it work?” His stock answer: “I haven’t the foggiest idea.” King has admitted he had very little experience in IT, so he was no doubt being truthful.
The Obama administration completely failed in its oversight responsibilities. In May, 2013, after one federal inspection, King reported to other state officials that the question asked by federal monitors were neither “tough” nor relevant. “Behind the eight ball as we are,” he wrote. “I think our federal partners were impressed.”
In August 2013, only six weeks from the launch of Cover Oregon, King’s deputy Triz delaRosa assured state officials: “We will be ready to do business on everything, manual or automated.”
Kwong, the IT specialist, couldn’t believe the self-delusion. “If this were poker, Triz is describing an ‘all-in,’” Kwong wrote to Bob Cummings, the state legislature’s information-technology oversight analyst. “Sounds good to those of us standing around the card table observing . . . lots of resolve, focused, no-nonsense. To me, the hand has nothing — no flush, no straight, not even a pair. After all, there is no testable software release, no technical environment, and the paper forms are not even ready to go to the printer.”
Cummings replied to Kwong that they’d done all they could. “Your concerns are valid, but I think that all of this is out of (our) hands. . . . In this game of poker, if Cover Oregon doesn’t have a great hand, we all lose.”
Not surprisingly, Cover Oregon went bust after it launched on October 1.
Rocky King, its executive director, has been on leave since November and is set to retire from state service in March.
Since Cover Oregon’s launch, the website has seen 23,000 people select a private health plan. But state officials admitted last week they didn’t know how many have paid their premium, which is required before they’re officially covered. The decision on whether to pull the plug on the website will be made by April 1.