- Associated Press - Thursday, March 27, 2014

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Oregon legislators and officials with the state’s troubled health exchange are considering whether to open the meetings of a legislative oversight committee to the public after journalists were told they could not attend.

Reporters discovered the committee was meeting in private after a Cover Oregon spokeswoman on Tuesday banned two members of the media from the meeting room at the agency’s Durham headquarters.

An attorney who specializes in public records matters says state law requires that the meetings be open to the public.

“I cannot think of a reason why meetings of this group are deemed to be private,” Jack Orchard of the Portland law firm Ball Janik LLP told the Statesman Journal.

But Cover Oregon’s chief communications officer Amy Fauver contends the committee meetings didn’t meet the public meeting standards, because they consisted of informational briefings only.

Fauver said the agency’s attorneys had approved keeping the meetings private - and legislators agreed with their conclusion. Hence, no notices, agendas or minutes were ever created.

The bill that created the exchange also established the committee, which began meeting more than two years ago. Cover Oregon staff ran and organized the meetings. Until Tuesday, the meetings were held by conference call - though that fact does not make them exempt from public meeting rules.

Cover Oregon officials now say they’re willing to open the meetings - if legislators agree.

“If committee members want it to be a public meeting, we’re happy to operate it as such,” Fauver told The Associated Press on Thursday.

The private meetings were first reported by the Statesman Journal. They have brought to light a committee that has exercised no real oversight over the exchange fiasco.

Nearly six months after its exchange was due to go live, Oregon is the only state where the public still cannot sign up for health insurance online in one sitting. The state has spent more than $134 million in federal funds to build the exchange.

Committee members - Sen. Laurie Monnes-Anderson, Sen. Brian Boquist, Rep. Mitch Greenlick, and Rep. Jim Thompson - say the legislation gave them little power to do oversight.

Senate Bill 99 specified the committee could recommend individuals for nomination to the Cover Oregon board, but the committee didn’t start meeting until after the governor had appointed all the board members.

It also specified the committee could advise Cover Oregon and the Oregon Health Authority - the agency originally in charge of building the exchange - on “any other matters concerning the implementation of the health insurance exchange.”

But the committee did no such advising, gave no Cover Oregon direction, and made no decisions or formal recommendations, members and Cover Oregon officials said.

Instead, former Cover Oregon Executive Director Rocky King briefed the committee on a monthly basis, said Rep. Jim Thompson. Though King did mention missed deadlines and glitches in the exchange building process, Thompson said, he reassured them the project was on track to go live in October. Committee members, in turn, briefed legislative leadership on what they heard.

“These were painful, boring meetings. … We were getting mundane information that was not of any particular value,” Thompson told the AP. “In retrospect, we realized a lot of things were going on, but we never heard of them.”

Thompson and other committee members blame Cover Oregon for keeping them in the dark and not providing monthly quality-assurance reports. The committee was unaware of the reports’ existence until mid-February, when members read about them in the press, Thompson said.

Cover Oregon’s Fauver said the committee never asked for the reports.

“Somebody should have been ringing bells on that project,” Thompson said.

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