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Plenty of blame to go around for Cover Oregon

Heads have been rolling at the state capital since Gov. John Kitzhaber released an independent assessment of Cover Oregon a week ago.

If the Cover Oregon board agrees with Kitzhaber’s request to fire the chief information officer and chief operating officer, the tally for ousted Cover Oregon executives will have risen to five.

Whether a sixth person — the governor himself — should lose his job is a question voters eventually must answer.

In a press conference last week, Kitzhaber described himself as “angry” and “disappointed” by the roll-out of Cover Oregon. He should have added “embarrassed.”

What was intended to be an efficient mechanism for Oregonians to sign up for health care — and serve as a model for the rest of the country — has turned into an immense debacle. So much so that Oregon is the only state without a functioning website allowing residents to purchase health insurance at federally subsidized rates.

To put it in perspective, The Washington Post recently ran an article titled, “How Oregon wound up with the nation’s worst Obamacare website”

Health care is supposed to be Dr. Kitzhaber’s strong suit. Instead, he is left promising to make amends for massive amounts of wasted money and time. Last week, he pledged: “I am taking a number of steps to put Cover Oregon on a path to help deliver on a promise to Oregonians that I have been pursuing now for 25 years: access to quality and affordable health care. My longstanding goal is to ensure that every Oregonian who needs insurance coverage has the opportunity to enroll through the exchange or directly with a health plan. I am equally committed to ensuring that the problems we have experienced here do not happen again.”

Oregonians can only hope those words have more meaning this time around. By the way, it took another $228,000 to pay for the independent review.

Right now, Oracle Corp., the company tasked with creating the Cover Oregon software, has received $140 million and has yet to deliver anything that functions. The state still owes Oracle an additional $26 million for uncompleted work.

Kitzhaber has asked Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to decide the “full range of legal avenues and options for protecting the state’s investment.” However, since there was no specific contract, but rather a set of purchase orders, any attempt to receive compensation from Oracle will probably take several years and an untold amount of money to win some sort of settlement in court.

With that in mind, the powers that be still haven’t made up their minds whether to stick with Oracle and allow it to fix the problems, go with software being used in another state or switch to the federal health insurance exchange system.

None of these options are particularly appealing. The latter two solutions will undoubtedly take longer to implement and cost additional money. Nonetheless, both seem better than continuing to pay Oracle to fix a problem it has shown little ability to solve in the first place.

Oregon should cut its ties with Oracle and move on. If Oregon is ever going to have a working health insurance exchange system, it makes sense to use one that’s been proven elsewhere. Kentucky, Connecticut, New York, Washington and yes, even California are all considered to have health insurance exchanges that work.

But Oregonians must look not just at the cleanup, but also who was responsible for the mess. The independent report compiled by First Data identified lack of coordination as one primary problem with the program. Cover Oregon, the Department of Human Services and the Oregon Health Authority were all responsible for the project, but none of them had authority over the others. That made it difficult to communicate and reach decisions.

What’s more, Oregon’s agreement with Oracle went against recognized best practices and paid the software company based on time and materials rather than jobs completed.

From the beginning, Cover Oregon was an ambitious project in its scope in that it attempted to integrate a system in which Oregonians could sign up for health insurance, food stamps or any other public assistance program. While the massive scope of this program may have contributed to its downfall, the responsibility for the poor management decisions ultimately lies with the governor.

Voters must weigh Kitzhaber’s monumental failure with Cover Oregon against the rest of his 12-year record when they decide whether to re-elect him this fall.

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