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Oregon hires firm to probe Cover Oregon flaws

PORTLAND — Gov. John Kitzhaber said Thursday the state has hired a firm to conduct an independent review of what went wrong with Oregon's troubled health insurance exchange.

Several states and the federal government have struggled with exchange technology, but none as much as Oregon. Cover Oregon's online enrollment system still doesn't work more than three months after it was supposed to launch, and the state has hired or reassigned hundreds of workers to manually process applications. Officials say they hope the online system will be operational by March.

The state will pay First Data Government Solutions LP $228,000 to conduct the review, which is expected to begin later this month and take about six weeks.

The review seeks to determine when officials began to realize the website wouldn't launch on tim, why the state chose to use Oracle Corp. products and consulting services, how the project's scope was determined, and who was responsible for making decisions about the project.

Speaking at a news conference in Portland, Kitzhaber highlighted positive news: Oregon enrolled 170,000 people in health care coverage. While some had previous coverage, it's enough to make a big dent in the uninsured population.

But only a third of the 170,000 enrollees applied through Cover Oregon — including 20,000 people who enrolled in private coverage and more than 30,000 in the Oregon Health Plan, the state's version of Medicaid. The rest were enrolled in OHP using a process that bypassed the exchange.

The number of people enrolled in private coverage is far below the state's original goals, although lower-than-expected enrollment isn't limited to Oregon. The state is one of 14 states that are running their own insurance marketplaces.

"I'm very pleased with the progress that we're making," Kitzhaber said.

"There are clearly bumps out there and problems out there, but we're getting more successes and fewer problems every day, and we're going to continue leaning into this to make sure that we're successful."

Still, Kitzhaber said he's unsure when Cover Oregon's automated enrollment system will work end to end. For now, parts of the online system are available to Cover Oregon workers and insurance agents, but Oregonians still cannot create an account and complete the entire enrollment process through the portal.

Work on the website is ongoing, Cover Oregon officials said at a board meeting later Thursday, and the state also is bringing in two experts to review the coding of the exchange.

Bruce Goldberg, Cover Oregon's acting director, said programmers have reduced the number of critical issues that need to be resolved to fewer than 30, from 45 critical problems in December. The governor and some state officials have laid much of the blame on Oracle Corp., which was hired to build the exchange's technology.

Goldberg said the state is looking at backup options, such as buying additional software, using technology that's functioning in other states or the federal government, or even switching to direct-to-carrier enrollment. He said the state has hired Deloitte to review the options, but decisions won't be made until after March.

"We need to look at alternatives into the future should we not be able to have a website that's operational over the next couple of months," Goldberg said.

Oregon was one of four states that received huge payouts from the federal government to be an "early innovator," building a model that other states would emulate.

About 30,000 people received eligibility determinations but have not selected an insurance plan to finish the enrollment process, Goldberg said. He attributed the high number to state insurers extending plans that previously were slated to be canceled.

Open enrollment continues through March for private health plans.

Consumers have until March 31 to sign up in time to avoid a federal tax penalty for remaining uninsured.

The deadline to select a plan for coverage beginning in February is Jan. 18.