Executive director of Cover Oregon taking medical leave

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - The embattled director of Oregon's problem-plagued health insurance exchange said Monday that he'll be taking a leave of absence for medical reasons.

The board of Cover Oregon approved up to 12 weeks of medical leave for Rocky King, who came under fire when the online enrollment system wasn't ready to launch on schedule in October. Oregon Health Authority Director Bruce Goldberg will immediately serve as Cover Oregon's interim director, and a search committee was formed to find a longer-term replacement.

Technical problems with Oregon's online health insurance exchange have been an embarrassment to the state.

Emails uncovered by the On Your Side Investigators revealed that King knew back in May that critical coding issues had put the October launch of Cover Oregon in jeopardy. Messages KATU reviewed between state IT experts and the website's main contractor, Oracle, show an almost complete communications breakdown and a failure to meet several testing deadlines.

The botched rollout also forced people to apply using paper applications. The state has scrambled to hire or reassign nearly 500 people to process applications by hand.

KATU reached out to Oracle again for comment Monday but received no response.

The announcement about King's medical leave came right before Cover Oregon's board went into executive session to discuss his job performance. The board had the executive director on notice, demanding to know when the website will work and how Cover Oregon will get people enrolled by the end of the year.

King told reporters he had struggled with his health for several years and was planning to take some medical leave for a while, though he did not pick the date until last week.

"It's time for me to focus on my health for a little bit," he said. "I'd always planned in the last year to take some time as soon as we really got through the launch on Oct.1 . Unfortunately, it didn't launch quite the way we wanted."

He did not describe what his medical condition entailed. He also said he has not resigned, though his return to Cover Oregon was dependent on his health.

"No one's talked to me about stepping down. So far, everyone's supported me," King said. "This was really a personal decision that I've had to come to. I've struggled the last couple years with some issues - had to take a couple medical leaves - and this just kind of seemed like the right time as soon as we started to see that momentum going up."

But for the third time in the past few months, the board voted that King was not in compliance, this time when it came to the exchange's launch date, the plan to enroll the maximum number of Oregonians, and the plan to get the exchange functional.

King has said Oregon set out to build an unusually complex exchange and didn't have enough time to do adequate testing. Experts warned for months that Oregon was trying to do too much and risked missing the deadline to launch, but Cover Oregon officials refused to substantially dial back their plans until it was too late.

For two months, Oregon was unable to enroll a single person. Officials announced Monday that the first 219 people have enrolled in private insurance. About 3,200 have enrolled in Medicaid.

More than 54,000 applications have been received so far. Many of them are incomplete, King said, requiring workers to follow up with applicants to fill in missing information.

And 40,000 of those applications have yet to go through eligibility determination - that's not counting the applications that will be filed over the next two days. For coverage that begins Jan. 1, applications must be postmarked by Wednesday.

In a report to the board, Cover Oregon officials said they would complete all application determinations for tax-credit eligibility and mail enrollment packets back to applicants by the end of this week. Officials did not say how they would process such a large number of applications in a matter of days.

Once Oregonians receive their enrollment packets, they must choose a plan and mail the packet back to Cover Oregon by Dec. 15.

King also told board members it was unclear whether Cover Oregon would meet two deadlines to have the online exchange fully functional. King had told lawmakers he hoped the online system would be ready on Dec. 9 for insurance agents and community groups that have contracts with Cover Oregon, and for all individuals on Dec. 16.

Cover Oregon has had three security breaches after workers following up on incomplete applications mailed personal information to the wrong people. In one case, the person who received someone else's application shredded it. In the two other cases, Cover Oregon officials are contacting the people whose information was compromised.

King said workers will now mail blank forms when seeking additional information.

"We take the issue of protecting consumer information very seriously," King said.

As for Cover Oregon's new interim director? Goldberg's first focus is signing up Oregonians for health insurance.

"I think one of the things we've learned and we talked about in the board meeting today was the need for more regular and frequent communications that I think have a bit more depth to the board that give them the confidence and the public the confidence that this is moving forward," he said.

Full coverage of the troubled Cover Oregon website:

On Your Side Investigator Chelsea Kopta contributed to this report.

Cooper reported from Salem.

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