- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 5, 2014

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Under pressure to do something about Oregon’s troubled health insurance exchange, state lawmakers on Wednesday dug into the first of several bills targeting Cover Oregon.

The measure would order Cover Oregon officials to seek more flexibility from the Obama administration, giving more people access to tax credits that subsidize insurance premiums and more time to sign up. State officials have already had informal discussions with the U.S. Department of Health and human Services, but no plans have been finalized.

It would also extend the life of an insurance program for people with pre-existing conditions, as legislative leaders promised late last year.

“I think we can all agree that Oregonians should not be the ones who pay the price for those failures,” said Rep. Shemia Fagan, D-Clackamas, the bill’s sponsor.

A state House committee took no formal action but promised to return to the topic.

Cover Oregon’s online enrollment system was supposed to launch in October, allowing individuals and small businesses to compare insurance plans and qualify for federal tax credits to subsidize the premiums. It wasn’t ready, however, forcing people to fill out a lengthy paper application that would have to be processed by hand. Pieces of the website are now working and some portions of the processing are automated, but nobody can sit down and enroll from start to finish.

The state has hired or reassigned 400 workers to process applications. As of Jan. 30, nearly 90,000 people had enrolled, 32,000 of them in private insurance and the rest in Oregon’s Medicaid program, the Oregon Health Plan. Another 123,000 people had enrolled directly in Medicaid through a process that bypasses Cover Oregon.

Fagan’s measure, House Bill 4154, would order Cover Oregon officials to seek authority from the federal government to give tax credits to people who bought a policy directly from an insurance company because they couldn’t enroll through Cover Oregon. It would also order the state to request a one-month extension of the deadline to obtain insurance before incurring penalty under the new requirement that all Americans have health coverage.

The measure would extend whistleblower protections that apply to most state workers to employees of Cover Oregon, which is a semi-autonomous public corporation that’s exempt from many state rules, and its contractors. The governor would be allowed to remove Cover Oregon’s entire board of directors; he’s currently allowed to fire no more than three members per year.

“I applaud the effort to find a solution. I just think we’re looking at a very inadequate solution,” said Rep. Bill Kennemer, R-Oregon City.

A separate measure, House Bill 4122, up for debate tomorrow in a different House committee, would require certain large projects to have an independent quality assurance contractor.

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