Oregon gets ready to jettison healthcare exchange after website woes

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, whose state has struggled to provide online access to healthcare.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, whose state has struggled to provide online access to healthcare.
(Don Ryan / Associated Press )

DURHAM, Ore. — Oregon officials are poised to vote Friday on whether to jettison their troubled health insurance exchange and become the first state in the country to switch to the federal version, which had its own rocky start before righting itself.

At a Thursday meeting, Cover Oregon’s technology advisory committee announced that it had recommended that the agency scrap its local exchange because there was neither the time nor the money available to fix it. The Cover Oregon board will vote Friday.

If the board accepts the recommendation, “we won’t use the technology for the local exchange,” said Clyde Hamstreet, Cover Oregon’s interim executive director. “We’ll be using federal technology for the applicants who want to buy insurance through Obamacare.”


Oregon’s website failed spectacularly, never allowing consumers to shop for plans and enroll online. The agency ran through an estimated $248 million in federal funding through the end of March, but was forced to sign up would-be insurance customers using paper applications.

The state has dismissed Oracle, its main technology vendor, and Gov. John Kitzhaber has asked the state’s attorney general to investigate its legal options.

In a statement Thursday, Oracle spokeswoman Deborah Hellinger said the firm “looks forward to providing any assistance the state needs in moving parts of Oregon’s healthcare exchange to the federal system if it ultimately decides to do so. Oracle will continue to support the state in providing longterm solutions for Oregonians, and to assist with its ongoing healthcare modernization efforts.”

Federal officials have worked closely with Oregon throughout the debacle — giving them extra time to enroll consumers — and a spokeswoman with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said in an email Thursday that it stood ready to assist Oregon once a final decision was made.

A federal official noted that the national exchange was designed to be scalable, meaning that the system could be adjusted to add states wishing to join.

James D. Moore, a professor of political science at Pacific University in Oregon who has followed the Obamacare rollout, said Oregon was probably the biggest failure nationally of the 14 states that chose to run their own insurance exchanges.


“Oregon, especially with the current governor, has prided itself on being a trailblazer in lots of healthcare things,” Moore said. “This says not only can we not do it, but we were an abject failure at it in this particular round. It’s going to damage Oregon’s national reputation. It may have an impact on Kitzhaber’s reelection campaign.”

Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, made Obamacare a priority, and the state was already viewed as a national model by demanding better coordination among health providers to improve care for Medicaid patients.

While Oregon’s adoption of the federal website would be a first, it is not the only state to change its approach in the face of technical difficulties. This month, the board of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange voted to overhaul its troubled healthcare website by adopting the smooth-running technology platform developed by Connecticut.

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