By Associated Press • 

Cover Oregon: Exchange won't launch in March

PORTLAND — Officials with Oregon's troubled health insurance exchange said the full online Cover Oregon portal will not be open to the public before the end of March, when nearly all Americans are required to have insurance under the federal health care law.

The exchange's chief information officer Aaron Karjala told Cover Oregon board members Thursday that the portal has experienced “an unacceptable number of IT errors” and system-stability problems since Cover Oregon launched the online enrollment system for insurance agents and community organizations in mid-February.

That translates to numerous error pages — something “we do not think the general public would accept,” Karjala said.

More than five months after the exchange was due to go live, Oregon is the only state where the public still can't sign up for health insurance online in one sitting. The public and Cover Oregon must use a hybrid paper-online process to enroll in coverage.

Cover Oregon officials say the state has asked the federal government to grant Oregon a “special enrollment period” — similar to an extension — for the month of April. Officials were not clear what the difference is between an extension and a “special enrollment period.”

Officials also said they were asking the federal government for additional time to enroll people who submitted applications by March 31, the end of open enrollment. Currently Cover Oregon needs about 10 days to process an application using the hybrid paper-online process. Agents, however, can in many cases enroll residents within half an hour online.

Thus far, a total of 145,941 Oregonians have enrolled in coverage through Cover Oregon. 45,119 of those enrolled in private health plans, while over 100,822 enrolled in the Oregon Health Plan, the state's version of Medicaid.

Agents and partners have enrolled nearly 5,000 of those people through the portal in one sitting.

The enrollment figures still fall short of the Obama administration's original projections, which assumed 189,600 would sign up for individual policies by the end of February.

Cover Oregon officials say they're considering alternatives for the next open-enrollment period, which begins in November. That could involve buying technology that's working in other states, using the federal exchange, or finding another software company to build off the work the state's main technology vendor Oracle Corp. has started. Cover Oregon still has not ruled out working in the future with Oracle.

A federal government report on Oregon's botched health insurance exchange faulted Oracle for not providing key information to Cover Oregon and blamed the exchange for lax management.

The review by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, first reported by The Oregonian on Thursday, said Cover Oregon lacks oversight over the project and has limited visibility into Oracle's work. The state also lacks leverage in its contract to make Oracle accountable for missing deadlines.

As a result, the report says Cover Oregon is largely dependent on the vendor and isn't closely monitoring Oracle's activities to make sure the company is fulfilling the requirements of the contract.

According to the report, Cover Oregon's system architecture and data model need “significant review and re-work.”

It recommends that Cover Oregon “identify a more appropriate” IT vendor, change management practices, and perform an in-depth analysis of the current architecture, among others.

Cover Oregon officials said Oracle has since been more cooperative.

“Those recommendations were not a surprise to us, and in many cases we were already working through many of the items,” Cover Oregon's Karjala said. “We're using the report as just another input for areas where we can improve.”

The report, dated Feb. 27 and based on a mid-January site visit by federal IT specialists, says Oracle has not provided Oregon with comprehensive test results and analysis reports. It also suggests many Oracle staff “do not have extensive knowledge and experience” and that Oracle may be “throwing bodies rather than skillset at a problem.” That, it says, is significantly racking up project costs.

Thus far, the state has paid Oracle more than $134 million for building the exchange. Cover Oregon is continuing to withhold $26 million that Oracle Corp. has billed for technology development.

Two weeks ago, Oracle pulled 100 of its software developers out of Oregon — nearly two-thirds of Cover Oregon's Oracle workforce — from the exchange project. Just 65 Oracle developers remain to work on the project.

The report praises Oracle for some progress, including in “systems engineering areas” — as evidenced by recent releases being delivered on time — and in the stabilization of the exchange system.

“There are still significant performance issues with the system such that, while the core functionality exists, the end user experience would be significantly diminished,” the report says.

Oracle declined to comment.

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