Cover Oregon clings to grand vision despite delays

Published on NewsOK Modified: November 10, 2013 at 2:15 pm •  Published: November 10, 2013
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SALEM, Ore. (AP) — With a reputation as a pacesetter in health care, Oregon laid out bold plans for complying with the federal overhaul.

The state wouldn't just create a health insurance exchange, a complicated undertaking in its own right. Oregon officials set out to build one of the biggest and best in the nation — a model that other states would want to copy.

But more than a month after Cover Oregon's online enrollment was supposed to launch, reality is lagging far behind Gov. John Kitzhaber's grand ideas. The online system still doesn't work, and the exchange has yet to enroll a single person in health insurance.

Interviews with state officials and a review of public records by The Associated Press suggest Cover Oregon officials bit off more than they could chew and clung to their ambitious vision even when their risk management consultants raised alarms.

While rushing to get the exchange done, programmers and project managers also were busy with separate complex computer projects for the Oregon Health Authority and the Department of Human Services.

Cover Oregon officials say they're working hard to finish the project and insist the features they're creating will be worth the wait — even if it remains unclear when the site will go online.

"We stuck to the vision, and we're experiencing now the bumps that go along with having a grand vision that doesn't work out exactly the way you hope it will," said Amy Fauver, chief communications officer for Cover Oregon.

Fauver said "we're confident that we will get the system up and running here in the near future" and that it "will be something we can be really proud of."

More than $300 million has been spent on the exchange so far, but the online enrollment system is still having trouble accurately determining whether people in complex family arrangements are eligible for Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Cover Oregon officials say their launch has been delayed because they refuse to put out an imperfect product and fix the bugs later. And they say their whole system is more complex and has more features than most other states — but that also means more things can go wrong.

Some of the complexity they face is inherent in Oregon's health care environment, which is unusually competitive. Eleven insurers are selling plans through Cover Oregon; some states have just a handful. Oregon also has complicated eligibility rules for Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program — known here as the Oregon Health Plan and Healthy Kids.

Some of the complications, though, are self-imposed, by the aspirations of the Legislature, the governor and the exchange's own leadership. When other states delayed or gave up on a concept called "no wrong door," Oregon held on, and is still holding on. The goal is to give people one portal — the Cover Oregon website — to sign up for insurance, whether they qualify for commercial insurance or Medicaid. In most other states, people who appear to qualify for Medicaid are sent to a separate enrollment process through the state Medicaid office.

From the very beginning, Oregon promised a "one-stop shop" for health insurance and, for better or worse, has refused to waiver. That means the state is seeking an entirely automated process for determining Medicaid eligibility and enrolling.