Oregon's Obamacare disaster

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Oregon???s dedication to Obamacare has been complete and total since the law passed, with Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber seeking to put the state front and center in developing an Obamacare exchange. But when it came time to launch, Cover Oregon fell flat ??? and now the politicians are scrambling to back away from the approach.

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 Oregonian 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.

King has been replaced by Bruce Goldberg, who is now trying to help legislators decide whether to scrap the multi-million dollar project entirely.

Interim Cover Oregon head Bruce Goldberg said Wednesday that while his team is making progress on fixing a flood of problems with the health exchange???s foundering website, it might ultimately have to scrap all or part of a system in which two years and tens of millions of dollars have been invested.

Goldberg testified Wednesday morning before the Joint Committee on Legislative Audits, Information Management and Technology.

???It???s no secret to anybody in this room or in this state that we don???t have a fully functioning website,??? Goldberg said, the first in a long series of admissions that there are major problems with the site. ???

???We need to start looking at ??? beyond March ??? what are our contingencies,??? Goldberg said. ???Be that other state systems or parts of the federal system to help with open enrollment. I don???t think we are at the point in time to make that decision, but we need to begin to make that plan.???

Goldberg said if the decision is made to move on, the state will try to leverage parts of the current system to avoid completely wasting a program in which the federal government initially invested $48 million.

How does something like this happen? It happens when politics trumps policy, and warnings go ignored because of it.

Three months since the Cover Oregon fiasco exploded into public view, questions have grown about the management failures and communication lapses that allowed it to happen. After dozens of interviews and the review of thousands of pages of legislative reports, memos and emails, The Oregonian has determined:

  • The project???s significant flaws were well documented dating back to November 2011. Multiple independent analysts repeatedly raised questions about poor management along with strong doubts that it could be operational by the Oct. 1, 2013 deadline.
  • Cover Oregon leaders wavered between despair and an almost evangelical enthusiasm that they could complete the site. In the end they charged ahead, piloting an unfinished, largely untested exchange project right up to the Oct. 1 go-live date with no backup plan ready to go.
  • Senior officials in Gov. John Kitzhaber???s office and elsewhere read at least some of these warnings but took no significant steps to intervene, apparently after being convinced by others the project was on track.
  • A key official in the massive IT project took steps to silence the critics. The Oregon Health Authority last January withheld payment from the company hired to monitor the project, claiming its persistent criticism was inaccurate and inflammatory.

The path forward for Oregon will probably end up with a shift to reliance on the federal exchange ??? a far cry from the promises of the Kitzhaber administration at the time their project launched. Well, at least it???s only a loss measured in the millions ??? the taxpayer bill if Kitzhaber mismanages his massive coordinated care gamble could be much, much bigger. And that???s a harder lift than a just launching a website.