and JONATHAN J. COOPER

and JONATHAN J. COOPER


PORTLAND — Gov. John Kitzhaber said Friday he is bringing in outside help to get Oregon's troubled health insurance exchange going.

The governor said former Providence Health System CEO Greg Van Pelt will "lend his expertise and provide an independent, outsider's view of Cover Oregon." Van Pelt will not be paid.

The announcement came on the same day the state Insurance Division said all of Oregon's health insurers will allow extensions of individual plans that had been scheduled for cancellation because they don't comply with the federal health care law.

The move affects about 145,000 Oregonians. It could take some heat off Oregon officials who won't have to enroll as many people, but it also means less revenue for the exchange, which must be self-sustaining by 2015.

Oregon was an early leader in developing an exchange but was embarrassed when the online enrollment system wasn't ready to launch in October. The exchange, known as Cover Oregon, is running far behind other states and has yet to enroll anyone.

The state is using a paper-based backup system instead and has hired or reassigned 400 workers to process applications by hand.

Kitzhaber also said Dr. Bruce Goldberg, director of the Oregon Health Authority, will oversee the application and enrollment process. Oregon has received about 30,000 paper applications thus far, the governor said. About 5,000 have been processed and sent back to applicants, who then have the option to pick an insurance plan and send their choice back to the state to enroll.

The state has also enrolled about 75,000 people in Medicaid via a "fast-track" enrollment process, reducing the ranks of the uninsured by more than 10 percent.

Kitzhaber says the moves will free Cover Oregon Executive Director Rocky King to focus on getting the exchange website working.

King has faced growing pressure from the Legislature and the exchange's governing board to explain what went wrong and how it will be fixed.

The governor said the problems with the exchange have been "frustrating" and the state will do a post-mortem analysis of what went wrong — but not until later.

For now, the state is focused on getting Oregonians enrolled via the manual paper system, he said.

"We have limited time, so we're putting all hands on deck to make sure every person who wants insurance by Jan. 1 will have it," Kitzhaber said.

The governor also said he should have been paying more attention to Cover Oregon's woes.

"In retrospect, I should have been more engaged in the project. I didn't realize the problems were so significant," he said.

While other states building their own insurance exchanges have compromised on certain features, Oregon has held on to its vision of building a complicated clearinghouse that could screen people for a wide range of public assistance programs, not just health care.

Cover Oregon is supposed to allow people to shop online for health coverage, find out whether they qualify for tax credits under the federal health care law, and enroll in an insurance plan or Medicaid. But Oregon's system has struggled to accurately determine whether people are eligible for Medicaid or tax credits.

State officials say Cover Oregon's online enrollment should work for individuals by mid-December, but not in time for people to get coverage that begins Jan. 1. To have coverage at the start of the year, applications must be postmarked by Dec. 4 and a plan must be selected by Dec. 15.

Oregonians who were previously faced with notices of cancellations and choose to renew their current plans will not qualify for tax credits to lower costs through Cover Oregon. But they will avoid a tax penalty in 2014 under the individual mandate if they renew the plan.

Seven of the nine carriers in Oregon will allow customers to renew their plans through the end of next year.

They are: Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Northwest, Providence Health Plan, LifeWise Health Plan of Oregon, Health Net Health Plan of Oregon Inc., Time Insurance Co. and John Alden Life Insurance Co.

The two other carriers — Moda Health Plan and PacificSource Health Plans — will allow renewal through March 31.

People who are allowed to extend the coverage must opt-in to keep their current plan.