Aaron Patnode, the new executive director for Cover Oregon via LinkedIn

The Cover Oregon board on Thursday authorized the hiring of a new executive director, Aaron Patnode, to lead the exchange even as it lays off employees and contemplates an uncertain future.

In its Thursday board meeting, the board voted unanimously to negotiate a contract with Patnode, 35, a Kaiser Permanente manager. His salary has not been finalized but could reach as high as $225,000.

Patnode takes over an organization under stress and that continues to change rapidly. Cover Oregon officials announced that layoffs would take place tomorrow, helping reduce the payroll by 30 percent.

Meanwhile, Cover Oregon is racing to hook up to the federal exchange and hire a new information-technology company to lead those efforts.

Oregon's earlier $250 million attempt to set up a state-based exchange using Oracle Corp. as the lead contractor ended in technological failure, though officials say they made encouraging progress over the last two months. They also stressed that a manual and tech-assisted enrollment process helped process enrollments for close to 300,000 people in health coverage, despite a process consultant Clyde Hamstreet called "cumbersome and expensive.

The costs of that manual process and the technological failure continue to mount. Cover Oregon is now tackling a months-long backlog of 110,000 "life changes," manually entering account changes caused by things such as births and new addresses, officials said. Each one will take 20 to 30 minutes to enter, a process that will take until August. Moreover, there are at least 7,000 known data errors, largely caused by human error during the manual process, that need correcting.

The board now is mulling its future. Is Cover Oregon's structure as a public corporation the right one? Or, with many of its responsibilities moving to the federal government, should its responsibilities be handed to the state? The board will hold a retreat and prepare a report to the Legislature in September, officials said.

Patnode did not attend the board meeting and did not return a message placed through Kaiser Permanente earlier in the day.

Before working on reform implementation and strategic planning for Kaiser, Patnode was business manager for Kaiser's Sunnyside Medical Center emergency department. He also has worked as a consultant and in public relations. He holds master's degrees in health care and business administration from the University of Minnesota.

Oregon's only permanent executive director, Rocky King, earned about $182,000 a year. He resigned in January for medical reasons, and was succeeded by interim director Bruce Goldberg, who submitted his resignation in March. Consultant Clyde Hamstreet, a corporate turnaround expert, has been filling in since then while looking for ways to "restructure" the agency.

Cover Oregon board member George Brown, who led the search, said "It's clear that he relishes the challenge and he understands what's at risk here."

©2014 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)