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Outgoing legislator grills state officials during panel hearing

The high costs of computer software for Oregon’s budding health insurance exchange program have caused concerns for Rep. Patrick Sheehan, R-Clackamas, who raised the issue during a recent committee hearing.

Rep. Patrick SheehanSheehan, whose district includes Estacada, leaves office at the end of the year. He was defeated in his re-election bid by Democrat Shemia Fagen in November’s general election. But that didn’t stop Sheehan from questioning state officials about the information technology project during the Tuesday, Dec. 11, meeting of the Joint Committee on Legislative Audits, Information and Technology.

Bob Cummings, with the legislative fiscal office, stating during the hearing that the federal government has asked for a “ridiculously tight deadline” for the project, with components of it changing “left and right.” If the project isn’t completed by October, he added, the state will ask federal officials for an extension.

However, Cummings said Oregon is ahead of all the other states in implementing the project, which is a component of federal health care reform legislation.

Oregon is one of only six states to have received conditional approval to move forward on its health care exchange.

Sheehan contends that the health insurance exchange is spending $48 million trying to build a new system instead of licensing software designed for that purpose at a cost of $6 million, plus another $6 million for customization.

He said during the hearing that he has been asking state officials for nine months if there is any existing software that already provides the functions that would be performed by the computer system being built in Oregon. Sheehan added that he has been in contact with a company for nearly a year that has such software.

Carolyn Lawson, the chief information officer for the Oregon Health Authority and the state Department of Human Services, said that the software mentioned by Sheehan does not do what the state needs it to do. She said those systems haven’t been released, tested or tried.

Sheehan replied that several companies have similar software and that he has received a live demonstration of how it works.

“I’m astounded right now that this is where we are,” Sheehan said.

Lawson said that the system being developed is much more comprehensive.

“What you’re describing is not what I’ve seen,” Lawson said.

The state asked for $96 million in federal money to develop the system and received $48 million, Lawson said, and is being conservative with how it is being spent.

Lawson said that 60 different interfaces are required for the system. She added that the software mentioned by Sheehan doesn’t have those interfaces or the level of security needed for such a project.

Rep. Chris Harker, D-Beaverton, who serves as co-chair of the committee, expressed optimism about the project’s chances of success.

He said that he has encountered institutions that have tried to build similar information management systems and failed, and added that the state would lose a lot of time and money if it were to backtrack on the project at this point.

Sheehan responded that the purpose of the committee is to prevent expensive mistakes from being made.

But Rocky King from Care Oregon said that money is not the issue. The state is in budget negotiations with federal officials for 2013-14, he said, adding that California received $350 million to develop its system.

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