Walden calls for federal investigation of Cover Oregon

Walden calls for federal investigation of Cover Oregon »Play Video
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, (left) and state Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, held a news conference in Medford Thursday morning. (KATU photo)

MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) — 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 U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Watch today's news conferences:

Walden announced the request at a news conference in Medford, where 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 spokesman Chuck Young said in an email it takes weeks to evaluate a request, and the office had made no decision yet.

"We have a review process that we go through for every request. It takes a few weeks. So we won't have a decision right away," he said. "We have both completed and (have) ongoing work related to the Affordable Care Act nationally. I don't believe we have yet looked at one particular state."

Cover Oregon spokesman Michael Cox said in an email he had no comment.

In response to questions from KATU Thursday, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said he wants answers, too, and said "Congress will do what Congress will do" just as long as it doesn't slow down people from getting health care.

""No one is angrier than I am about the issues with CoverOregon," he said in a statement to KATU. "No one wants to get to the bottom of this more than I do. We do already have new CoverOregon leadership in place. And I won't hesitate to take further action to make this right. That's why I called in First Data to do an independent review of what went wrong and how."

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

Walden, who heads the GOP committee to elect Republicans to the House, also asked investigators to 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.

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.

Democratic political consultant Len Bergstein said Cover Oregon's problems would become the dominant political issue in Oregon during this campaign season, but were unlikely to play out on a national stage.

"Everybody had better kind of like strap themselves in for a campaign season full of charges over Cover Oregon, some of which will be difficult for Democrats to handle, and some of them will kind of fall on deaf ears," he said. "Republicans will become fatigued with the charges as the benefits of the program come into play."

Bergstein added he did not think Walden's call for an investigation was aimed at campaigns in other states, but was intended to help Oregon candidates like Richardson.

Richardson said they would be demanding accountability for Cover Oregon whether it was a campaign issue or not.

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.


Full statement from Gov. John Kitzhaber sent to KATU:

"No one is angrier than I am about the issues with CoverOregon. No one wants to get to the bottom of this more than I do. We do already have new CoverOregon leadership in place. And I won't hesitate to take further action to make this right. That's why I called in First Data to do an independent review of what went wrong and how.
 
"Congress will do what Congress will do just so long as it does not slow down the process of getting Oregonians healthcare. Already more than 225,000 Oregonians have enrolled in quality, affordable coverage, including more than 35,000 in private insurance plans."

Watch today's news conferences:

Part 1: U.S. Rep. Walden, state Rep. Richardson

Part 2: U.S. Rep. Walden, state Rep. Richardson

State Rep. Dennis Richardson's news conference from Salem


KATU coverage of the troubled Cover Oregon website: