Congressman calls for Cover Oregon investigation

Of the Associated Press

MEDFORD) — U.S. Rep. Greg Walden and three congressional colleagues — all fellow Republicans— on Thursday requested a federal investigation of Oregon's troubled health insurance exchange, which has been unable to sign up a single person through its online portal because of technical problems that were known months before it was supposed to launch.

“The catastrophic breakdown of Cover Oregon is unacceptable, and taxpayers deserve accountability,” Walden and the others wrote in a letter to the General Accounting Office.

Walden announced the request at a news conference in Medford. He was joined by state Rep. Dennis Richardson, a Republican running for governor.

Walden is asking the Government Accountability Office to look into how the state spent $304 million in federal funds on the startup of Cover Oregon.

GAO did not immediately return a call Thursday, while Cover Oregon spokesman Michael Cox said in an email he had no comment.

Walden, who heads the GOP committee to elect Republicans to the House, says investigators also will look into whether an estimated $100 million of the federal money not yet spent can be recovered.

Other questions Walden and his congressional colleagues submitted to investigators include:

— What capability does the federal government have to reclaim those funds if Oregon abandons the state-run exchange and joins the federal one?

— What other costs has Oregon incurred because of the website's failure?

— Did Cover Oregon's status as a state organization play a role in its failure?

— What steps could federal agencies have taken to assure state and federal oversight of projects like this in the future.

Republicans have been stepping up their attacks on troubled health exchanges during this election year.

Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, has acknowledged mistakes were made in Cover Oregon's launch but has denied having prior knowledge of problems that kept the website from launching on time.

Richardson disputed this, saying he included Kitzhaber on an email about problems in September 2012, and when he got no response, told him on the telephone. Richardson later followed up and thanked the governor for addressing his concerns.

Oregon Democrats have focused on their success at getting people enrolled despite the website's problems, saying they've managed to extend health coverage to more than 200,000 people, many of whom didn't have it before.

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.

Other congressional Republicans who signed the letter to the GAO are Fred Upton of Michigan, and Joe Pitts and Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania.

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