Influential members of Congress want a federal probe of the beleaguered Cover Oregon health insurance exchange for its troubles enrolling people -- even as exchange programmers try to get its site up and running.
On Thursday morning Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., announced a formal request to the Congressional Government Accountability Office to investigate how the federal government could have prevented the Oregon exchange debacle, as well as how federal funds were spent.
The dose of election-year politics only boosts the pressure on the only exchange in the country to not enroll anyone electronically as envisioned by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
On Thursday afternoon, the Oregon exchange's appointed board heard how the exchange continues to test the beta version of its website and software, possibly letting agents use it by this weekend. Meanwhile, a proposed budget would ratchet back spending, in part by cutting $5 million from the budget for advertising and outreach.
The exchange appears to be making progress on the human toll of its non-functioning website: Oregonians seeking health care but caught in limbo, many for months after submitting applications to the exchange's makeshift manual processing system. Officials said the exchange has cut its backlog of unprocessed applications for health insurance in half in just the last week, to about 10,000.
Though Gov. John Kitzhaber has already hired a consultant to review the mess, that firm may soon have federal company.
Walden joined with House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy (R-Penn), Health Subcommittee Chairman Joe Pitts (R-Penn), and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich) to sign a Feb. 12 letter requesting an investigation to Gene Dodaro, the U.S. Comptroller General who oversees the Government Accountability Office.
"We've got to pull the cover off of Cover Oregon," Walden said, of the request to GAO. He said he's confident GAO will take on the job, as officials for the office even helped craft the letter.
Charles Young, a GAO spokesman, said the office typically takes a few weeks to review requests, "So we don't have any decision yet."
Walden dismissed Kitzhaber's hiring of Atlanta-based First Data to review the Cover Oregon problems, noting that media accounts have shown numerous warnings of mismanagement and poor decision-making by the project's top managers were discounted or ignored.
Walden was joined by Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, considered the Republican frontrunner to challenge Kitzhaber in November. Richardson already had floated an online petition asking the GAO to look into the exchange problems. He criticized the feel-good promises made by exchange managers in the months prior to the intended Oct. 1 launch date. "If you know a train wreck is coming, you don't sit in the club car and toast each other."
Top Kitzhaber health care appointees have laid blame for the problems on exchange contractor Oracle Corp., the volunteer board of Cover Oregon, and two managers who've since resigned.
Kitzhaber issued a response after Walden's announcement, stressing that Oregon has been enrolling people despite the exchange's technological troubles. Several hundred state and temporary workers have manually enrolled about 100,000 people in all, one third of them into private health plans and the rest in the Medicaid-funded Oregon Health Plan.
No one, Kitzhaber said, "wants to get to the bottom of this more than I do."
He downplayed the significance of any federal probe, saying "Congress will do what Congress will do -- so long as it does not slow down the process of getting Oregonians healthcare."
©2014 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)