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Good news, bad news for Cover Oregon


Lawmakers focus on correcting the flaws of the program, while a local insurance agent has praised the merits of the troubled exchange

As March approaches, the much-maligned Cover Oregon program has become the catalyst for two Oregon bills and could face a federal investigation.

Earlier this month, U.S Representative Greg Walden (R-Ore.) joined other House leaders in calling on the General Accountability Office to request an investigation into the health insurance exchange.

“In the nearly four months since HealthCare.gov and the state-run insurance exchanges launched, consumers have encountered numerous problems at both the federal and state level,” Walden said. “Although the rollout of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has been problematic nationwide, no state has had more complications than Oregon.”

He went on to say that the Cover Oregon website was such a technological failure, it could not enroll anyone months after the start of the open enrollment period.

Walden pointed out that in 2010, the Office for Oregon Health Policy and Research received a $1 million state planning grant from the federal government to develop a health insurance exchange model. Since then, the state has been granted more than $304 million in federal money to build, test, and operate the insurance marketplace.

“The catastrophic breakdown of Cover Oregon is unacceptable and taxpayers deserve accountability," said Walden.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in the exchange’s home state have passed legislation meant to prevent future technology miscues and provide assistance to those who face issues because of the Cover Oregon problems.

House Bill 4154 was created on the basis that thousands of Oregonians signed up for health insurance by going around the exchange to private insurers. As a result, under federal law, they are no longer eligible for the subsidies provided under the exchange.

The legislation would direct the Cover Oregon board to seek a federal waiver to allow those Oregonians to access the subsidies they are due.

“This bill contains real solutions that will help Oregonians right now,” said Rep. Shermia Fagan, a Democrat from Clackamas who is the chief sponsor of the bill. The legislation was recently referred to the Joint Ways and Means Committee.

House Bill 4122 requires an independent quality assurance review for all public IT contracts exceeding $5 million and other public IT contracts that meet specific requirements. The legislation also requires that reports are sent to people who can review them promptly and do something about any problems identified.

“We don’t want the report to go only to someone who’s just going to stick it in a drawer,” said Rep. Nancy Nathanson, a Eugene Democrat and chief co-sponsor of the bill. “This bill would help ensure that significant projects have the oversight they need to keep things going south, or at least to make a mid-course correction that would straighten them out.”

The House voted in favor of HB 4122 by a 40-18 margin, and now moves onto the Senate for further consideration.

As lawmakers react to the Cover Oregon problems, good news and reviews have emerged about the exchange in recent days. Officials for the insurance exchange announced that they have gotten the website partially functional. They stated that agents and community partners can now process an entire enrollment online in most cases without assistance from Cover Oregon staff.

In addition, a local insurance agent registered with Cover Oregon has given the exchange itself favorable reviews.

“We get a lot of people who have been calling us and getting our name off of the site,” said Farmers Insurance Agent Jerry Burger. “As of February, we doubled the amount of people we enrolled in January.”

Burger says that the negative press Cover Oregon received has been greatly exaggerated and he believes that more people would embrace the exchange if they understood it better.

“If people understood it and they came in and we actually explain it to them, they would be amazed with it, especially people with lower incomes,” he said. “A lot of people are coming in and getting coverage for nothing out of pocket, or quite little out of pocket, with the tax breaks.”

The agency takes a client’s information, and their tax information, and sends it to Cover Oregon. The exchange then returns health insurance plans available, their price, and the amount of tax break they are would receive. Burger stressed that the agency does not charge a fee for the services they provide.

“I don’t think there has really been anybody yet who has come in that put the information through that did not sign up with them,” Burger said. “It has been an amazing program. I am sold on it myself.”