Kitzhaber admits problems but says Cover Oregon will work out

PORTLAND, Ore. - Gov. John Kitzhaber acknowledged Wednesday during an interview with KATU News that Oregon's health insurance exchange has problems but said he believes the state will work everything out.

"I think we're in really good shape here in Oregon. Do we have some problems? Yes. Are we concerned? Of course. But I believe we'll come through this very well," he told KATU's Steve Dunn during a taping of KATU's political show, "Your Voice, Your Vote," which will air this Sunday at 9 a.m.

Kitzhaber said he's set a deadline of Jan. 1 for signing eligible people up under Cover Oregon.

He acknowledged there are technical problems with the website. In context, the governor said Oregon is taking on a lot more than other states by setting up its own exchange and expanding Medicaid enrollment.

He also acknowledged the fix could take two more months.

Cover Oregon is the state's website where residents can shop for health insurance required under the Affordable Care Act, aka, Obamacare.

The website has been plagued by problems just like the federal website, including long waits, pages freezing and timing out.

The governor says he's made sure Cover Oregon has all of the resources it needs from the executive branch and people are signing up - just on paper.

Kitzhaber said it's too soon judge who to hold accountable for the problems, but said he's looking at the contractors working on the software and someone will absolutely be held accountable.

"We're on it. I'm in conversations every day with Cover Oregon and the technical folks, and we're going to make it work," he said.

150,000 will see plans canceled

Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported Wednesday that about 150,000 Oregonians enrolled in individual health care plans will see their plans canceled by the end of the year because the plans don't provide the minimum level of coverage required under the new health care law, according to state officials.

Those facing cancellations could see a break in coverage if they don't enroll in a new plan on the state's problem-plagued online exchange by Dec. 15, the state's Insurance Division spokeswoman Cheryl Martinis said.

Another group that could face a break in coverage: about 11,000 Oregonians who are part of the state's high-risk insurance pool - a program for those rejected by private insurance carriers because of pre-existing conditions. Because the insurance pool will dissolve by year's end, those individuals would be stuck without insurance if they don't enroll via Cover Oregon.

But a month in, the state has not enrolled a single person. Cover Oregon has received 4,260 paper applications and its website still can't tell people what subsidies they are eligible for.

Oregonians can sign up for a new plan via an insurance broker - but if they qualify for a subsidy, they can only enroll through Cover Oregon.

About 48,000 clients of Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield, one of Oregon's largest insurance providers, have plans that are not compliant with the Affordable Care Act and will see cancellation notices, spokesman Jared Ishkanian said.

The company has been communicating with those affected since early summer, Ishkanian said. Those who don't enroll in a new plan via Cover Oregon or through Regence will automatically be moved to a plan that's most comparable to the one they had.

They won't face a break in coverage, Ishkanian said, but could face much higher insurance costs.

"We're here to help people through what could be a difficult transition. We want them to experience as little disruption as possible," Ishkanian said.

This week, the Obama administration granted a six-week extension for Americans to sign up for coverage and avoid the tax penalties. But anyone who wants their new insurance to start Jan. 1 must abide by the Dec. 15 deadline.

Cover Oregon officials declined to name a date when they expect the website will be functional enough to enroll anyone and they could not explain how they plan to sign up hundreds of thousands of people within a month and half.

Spokesman Michael Cox said the state has already begun processing eligibility determinations manually and is "staffing up" to enroll Oregonians by hand should that be necessary.

"We do not anticipate having to process all applications by hand," Cox said, "but are finalizing our plans should the need arise. We are confident that those who apply for coverage effective January 1 will get it."

Oregon officials also said they're revisiting a rule that would force previously uninsured people who sign up for coverage to wait two years for a transplant. Oregon is the only state that has the two-year waiting period, and officials say it may not be lawful under the new health care law.

Oregon has an estimated 600,000 uninsured, though officials say about 200,000 are expected to sign up through 2014.

Watch an extended interview with Kitzhaber about Cover Oregon below. KATU's Steve Dunn also asks Kitzhaber about the art of compromise that Salem seems to have but Washington, D.C. doesn't. And Dunn asks Kitzhaber if he'll run for re-election. To find out the answers to those questions and more, watch "Your Voice, Your Vote" Sunday at 9 a.m.