Cover Oregon: Anatomy of a Debacle

coveroregonWhile it’s no secret that Cover Oregon hasn’t had the smoothest start, where did it all begin and how did we get here? A bureaucratic mess the equivalent of a chicken with its head cut off, there’s an overarching sense of buck-passing, denial, false hope and just a lack of reality. Let’s take a look one step at a time from it’s early 2012 start until present day.

Jan. 12: Rocky King, the Oregon Health Exchange executive director, revealed at a meeting attended by 100 people including Governor John Kitzhaber that the new health insurance exchange, Cover Oregon, could help 471,000 Oregonians receive healthcare coverage by 2016.

Jan. 17: Cover Oregon collects $226 million to help the new healthcare exchange by providing a health plan marketplace for customers to enroll in. The exchange is set to open by 2014. So far, so good.

May 3: Small employers may find themselves not well represented by Cover Oregon insurers, who believe most of the demand for healthcare coverage will come from individuals, not small businesses. What?

June 19: Executive Director Rocky King and Cover Oregon hope to have the state health exchange up and running by an Oct. 1 deadline. He admits there’s a contingency plan in place if things go wrong. Oregonians begin to get skeptical.

July 8: Cover Oregon debuts a series of feel-good advertisements that tap into Oregonian acts that sound just enough like Bob Dylan and Kimya Dawson ripoffs to make the hard sell to 20 and 30 somethings in the state. With over $16 million sunk into advertising like this, what could possibly go wrong? I mean, aside from it being terrible and culturally offensive to commandeer artists to help sell their fans busted goods.

July 16: Cover Oregon’s initial presence creates a wave of competition that looks sure to drive down premiums. Positions the state to look like a nationwide leader in health care change.

July 23: A preview of the Cover Oregon enrollment website whets everyone’s collective whistles for an easy-to-use and functional new healthcare future.

Aug. 8: The hip-hop ad for Cover Oregon debuts, drawing a line in the sand for humanity’s crimes against culture.

Aug. 12: Cover Oregon messes around with its rollout plan and starts confusing the hell out of everyone. The public will be able to look for plans starting Oct. 1, but enrollment in coverage or tax credits will have to be done through an agent/community partner for awhile. The scent of doom wafts in the air.

Aug. 20: Cover Oregon revs its engines despite a budget shortfall of just over $16 million.

Oct. 1: Cover Oregon debuts amongst unending technical glitches, immediately necessitating paper applications. “We went through and found there just wasn’t quite the accuracy we wanted,” said Cover Oregon Executive Director Rocky King. “I want to get it right for Oregonians.” Later folks, we’ll be witnessing this not happen in the slightest. So much for hopeful quotes.

Oct. 2: A whopping 122,000 hits on the first day of Cover Oregon’s website—only it’s too bad that nobody could buy any insurance. Epic fail.

Oct. 24: Due to the massive website failure, Cover Oregon starts processing paper applications.

Oct. 30: 145,000 Oregonians get a letter that says their insurance policies are canceled for incompatibility with the Affordable Care Act. Nope, it wasn’t a mistake.

Oct. 31: Governor Kitzhaber announced that the technical issues being experienced won’t stop enrollment for the Jan. 1 deadline. He also assured Oregonians that he holds himself personally responsible for the situation. In retrospect, those words probably weren’t the wisest choice.

Nov. 19: It is revealed that a quality assurance contractor had questioned Cover Oregon’s IT readiness just two months before the site fizzled on its Oct. 1 start. Basically, the system tanked on a great number of quality ratings by contractor Maximus, and it placed the website in the “red” zone before it even started up. Yowza.

Nov. 20: Director Rocky King testifies before state legislators and says that he has abandoned any hope that the online enrollment program from the health exchange would be working before the Affordable Care Act’s first enrollment period ends on March 31. “I no longer use the word ‘hope’ that something is going to work,” Cover Oregon Executive Director Rocky King said.

Dec. 2: Director Rocky King jumps ship on a “permanent medical leave,” being replaced by Oregon Health Authority Director Dr. Bruce Goldberg. Out of 54,000 applications, only 3,470 have been signed up, the vast majority of which are on the Oregon Health Plan.

Dec. 10: Oregonians are told that Cover Oregon won’t be running by the end of the year. 65,000 applications still include 37,000 in pending status and only 9,949 actually enrolled. “People are confused, upset, and angry, and I’m sorry about that,” Goldberg said. “My job is to get that fixed, get people covered, and get the website up.”

Dec. 20: Cover Oregon spokesfolks cough up the news that they’re considering switching to another software vendor due to the continued failure of Oracle Corps’ offering (or perhaps those attempting to implement it). Additionally, they have announced that if residents don’t receive enrollment confirmation by Monday Dec. 23, they should look for coverage elsewhere. Thanks, folks.

Jan. 2: Rocky King drags his headstone into place officially. Go go gadget Bruce Goldberg.

Jan. 9: Kitzhaber skips out on an interview with Portland’s KATU after being hit with a series of questions regarding Carolyn Lawnson – the Chief Information Officer in charge of the Cover Oregon web development. Kitzhaber claimed he didn’t hear about any associated problems until late last October, which is kind of funny considering state representative Patrick Sheehan had sent his office a warning email about 10 months prior to that. Kitzhaber claims he never saw it, which, whether that’s true or not, is an embarrassing fail all by itself.

Additionally, Kitzhaber spills the beans that the state has signed a contract with a company, First Data, who will be tasked with figuring out what should be done about the ongoing website problems. They’ll also be looking into how Oracle, the original company that set the web site up, performed.

Jan. 10: At this point, 50,000 Oregonians have been enrolled, but there still remain serious questions about whether or not Cover Oregon can get the website up and running by the March deadline for open enrollment.

Undoubtedly the system will one day be up and running. And to put things into perspective, even a rocky road to change is better than no road at all. Still, this hatchet job of an implementation will serve as a painful reminder of what not to do for decades to come.

by Johnny Beaver