World and Nation

Health exchange in Oregon is not meeting high hopes

SALEM, Ore. — As the federal health care overhaul was rolled out over the last few years, Oregon was invariably the eager overachiever in the first row, waving a hand to volunteer. The governor, John Kitzhaber, a doctor who left the emergency room for politics, made health care his main issue. Fellow Democrats controlling the Legislature went along, embracing ambitious plans to extend insurance coverage and Medicaid to low-income residents.

Yet for all that, by some measures Oregon has among the most dysfunctional online insurance exchanges in the nation. Only about 50,000 people in Oregon have signed up for a commercial insurance plan through the exchange, well below the state’s goal, according to federal estimates. And almost all of those people enrolled using paper applications or with help from an insurance professional because the website had been so unreliable.

On Thursday, a grim-faced Kitzhaber released a new report, commissioned by the state with a private company, that underscored how systemic Oregon’s failure has been. The report found fault not only with the code-writers at Oracle, the software company contracted to build the site, but also with the state managers who overlooked or minimized repeated warnings that the system they had asked Oracle to build was too complex.

“Bad news needs to flow up quicker than any other kind of news — it’s true here, it’s true in the emergency room,” Kitzhaber said at a news conference in his office. He said that he had discussed with federal officials the possibility of reducing federal penalties for people have not been able to enroll, and that other options were on the table, including abandoning Oregon’s system entirely and using the federal website, or another state’s. With a March 31 deadline for first-year enrollment looming, the online exchange, Cover Oregon, is still unable to process an applicant from start to finish without help or paperwork.

He also accepted the resignation of the acting executive director of Cover Oregon — two previous executives have left since December — and said that legal action was being considered to recover some of the tens of millions of dollars already paid to Oracle.

Calls to Oracle’s corporate offices for comment were not returned.

In an interview, Kitzhaber, who is running for a fourth term this fall, said he had no doubt that Cover Oregon and its struggles would be “the issue” in the campaign. “There’s a lot of frustration and anger out there, and there should be,” he said.

But he said he thought that broader Republican attacks on the Affordable Care Act itself — a script likely to be followed in elections around the nation — would not find as receptive an audience in Oregon, with its strong Democratic base.