- Associated Press - Thursday, January 30, 2014

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Gov. John Kitzhaber said Thursday that he was led to believe in the run-up to the troubled rollout of Oregon’s health insurance exchange that problems developing the website would not prevent it from launching on time.

The governor said he won’t know who misled him about the website’s progress or what went wrong until he hears back from a technology firm he has hired to investigate.

In the years before the website’s failed launch, Kitzhaber said he heard from legislators and other observers that there were problems with the exchange, but he was always later assured that the concerns had been addressed. He was getting such bad information that he gave a speech to health policy experts three weeks after the website failed to launch bragging that the Cover Oregon “was smoothly opened for business.”

“What possible motivation could I have to knowingly roll out a website that was going to fail or to give a speech on Oct. 21 extolling the smoothness of the rollout?” Kitzhaber, a Democrat, told reporters at a legislative forum organized by The Associated Press. “Clearly, there’s a disconnect, and I’m not going to know what happened until we get an external, independent review.”

State lawmakers return to Salem on Monday to convene a legislative session that can last up to five weeks.

The Cover Oregon website was supposed to launch in October, but it still can’t enroll anyone from start to finish. There are no estimates for when it will be working. The state has contracted with First Data Government Solutions LP to dig into it at a cost of $228,000.

“I know your job is to dig and you should keep digging, but this isn’t New Jersey and I don’t think you’re going to find any traffic cones out there,” Kitzhaber told journalists, referring to a scandal that touched off when staffers to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ordered lane closures that snarled traffic.

Kitzhaber praised a backup system that allows people to complete some steps online but requires human intervention from state workers and temporary staff hired to process applications. The process has enrolled nearly 90,000 people in coverage, 32,000 with private insurers and the rest in the publicly funded Oregon Health Plan, the state’s version of Medicaid. Another 120,000 people have signed up directly for Medicaid using a process that bypasses Cover Oregon.

Democratic legislative leaders sought to distance themselves from Cover Oregon’s problems, pointing out that the legislation creating the exchange had bipartisan support and extolling the organization’s successful enrollments.

“We do have problems with Cover Oregon, and the way that the legislation was passed, a lot of authority was given to the executive branch,” said House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland.

Democrats in the House have proposed legislation that would allow the governor to fire the entire Cover Oregon board, instead of just three members per year as is currently allowed, and require an independent quality-assurance review on large technology projects, among other proposals.

Rep. Mike McLane, the Republican leader, said Democrats are trying hard to absolve themselves of blame for the Cover Oregon problems.

“The most dangerous place in this building is between a Democrat lawmaker and a microphone as they all rush to denounce Cover Oregon,” McLane said.

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