Kitzhaber calls for independent review of Cover Oregon

PORTLAND, Ore. - Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has called for an independent review of the problem-plagued state health care exchange.

The enrollment period began Oct. 1, but the rollout of Cover Oregon, the state's exchange, was riddled with technical glitches, outages and slowdowns.

To this day, not a single Oregonian has enrolled for online health coverage through the site. They can learn about the plans and comparison shop, but unlike Americans elsewhere, they must fill out old-fashioned paper applications to sign up for the policies they like.

{>}{>}{>}FAQ: What to do to ensure you have insurance on Jan. 1

Cover Oregon acting executive director, Dr. Bruce Goldberg, made the announcements during a press briefing Monday morning. Goldberg revealed the state has hired contractors to investigate the problems surrounding the site but did not give any other details. Spokesmen for the governor's office did not immediately return calls.

"I think that independent review will be helpful in answering those questions," Goldberg said of the many looming questions surrounding the Cover Oregon website.

Goldberg said Cover Oregon will hire two experts to review software code written by Oracle Corp., the primary contractor developing the exchange technology, and he repeated a pledge to hold the company accountable.

"We need to get people enrolled. We need a website that's usable, that helps people enroll and that's what we thought we were buying," Goldberg said. "I think that the contractor bears some responsibility for paying for that."

At the same time, Goldberg said Cover Oregon is finalizing arrangements with legal counsel to consider options, in its contract, to hold Oracle accountable.

"I think it's just prudent business and it's what we need to do," Goldberg said.

Cover Oregon has already withheld more than $18 million to $20 million from Oracle based on its lagging work performance. The software-development contract is not for a fixed price, but rather requires the state to pay an hourly fee.

On Monday, Goldberg said Cover Oregon will continue to withhold funds until it gets a fully functioning website. There's no estimate for when Cover Oregon's website will be able to fully launch, but Goldberg has said it won't happen before the end of January.

The war of words between Oracle and Cover Oregon had previously been mostly limited to internal emails, hundreds of which have been reviewed by the On Your Side Investigators. One email describes Oracle's performance as "At best, unacceptable."

When it became clear that a troubled website jeopardized enrollment, Cover Oregon hired more than 400 temporary workers to process paper applications. The hirings were a backup plan while Cover Oregon staff fixed the bugs in the website. At the time, officials said it fit within the budget.

But those hirings came a cost - a pricey one. It cost approximately $4 million for processing paper applications in the month of December alone, according to Goldberg. He said he planned to work with the independent lawyers to ensure that Oracle reimburses Cover Oregon for the money spent on paper applications.

The On Your Side Investigators reached out to Oracle several times for comment. They did not immediately return calls or messages Monday.

Enrollments by the Numbers

Goldberg said the state's insurance exchange significantly increased enrollment in private health plans to an estimated 7,500 people, and he expects many more people will be enrolled before the end of the month.

One week ago, 730 people had enrolled in private plans.

About 13,000 people who have applied to Cover Oregon were enrolled in Medicaid.

Goldberg said Cover Oregon will try to get in touch with everyone who has submitted an application to tell them its status and lay out their options if they need coverage to begin Jan. 1. People who won't be able to get insurance through Cover Oregon can buy coverage directly from an insurance company, he said, although they won't be eligible for tax credits.

The state has also created a temporary program for people in a high-risk pool, which includes people with diseases such as cancer who had been turned down for private insurance. The high-risk pool dissolves at the end of the year, but people in the program who haven't bought a new commercial plan will be automatically enrolled in the temporary program through March.

While hundreds of temporary employees work around the clock to process applications manually, the job is still very time-consuming.

"The paper process is new. We've gotten it up rapidly," Goldberg said. "There's been a lot of interest in it, a lot of applications."

Scaling Back Advertising

Cover Oregon is changing its tune when it comes to its catchy Portlandia-style TV spots, which attracted national attention - not all of it positive. The problem? The spots still in circulation have been pushing people to use the unworkable online exchange.

In the media briefing Monday, the On Your Side Investigators pressed Goldberg about how the troubled site would affect advertising dollars. He said Cover Oregon's now scaling back its multi-millionaire dollar campaign.

"We're doing our best to get through the applications that we have and while we're doing that, we think it's appropriate to hold off on any further advertising," Goldberg said.

Cover Oregon did not immediately have available the advertising dollars spent as of Monday.

Full coverage of the troubled Cover Oregon website: