Aaron N. Patnode is in the final stages of negotiating a contract to become the new executive director of Cover Oregon. And one of the questions he's getting practiced at answering is: Why?

Patnode knows the health insurance exchange is battling poor morale and appears on the brink of being enveloped in massive litigation in addition to being under investigation by Congress and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He knows it has become a symbol for many of government waste, and could well be abolished as the federal government takes over Cover Oregon's main responsibility of enrolling Oregonians in health coverage.

And yet, despite having just received yet another promotion from Kaiser Permanente Northwest, he wants the job anyway.

"It's my type of opportunity," says Patnode, now a director of business development for Kaiser. "That's what really drew me to it."

The Cover Oregon board last week announced that Patnode is the finalist in the months-long effort to find a replacement for Rocky King, who submitted his resignation for medical reasons in January. It authorized a contract negotiation with Patnode for a salary as high as $225,000, which would represent about a $40,000 raise over his predecessor.

Patnode, who turns 36 on Wednesday, was raised in Plattsburgh, New York. He earned a bachelor's degree in communications from Boston College, then two master's degrees from the University of Minnesota. He grew up playing the bassoon, swimming competitively, and skiing. In his professional life, he's worked in health care, public relations and management. His wife is a Kaiser epidemiologist.

Over time he's developed a thirst for problem-solving, Patnode says. "There's a lot of risk in the opportunity, but it's the type of stuff that I'm good at, getting into these challenging, sticky situations, making the most of them. And ultimately at the end of the day, leading a team through these really challenging and tumultuous types of situations -- and giving a big high five and a smile at the end of it, saying 'We did it.'"

For instance, he helped Kaiser get its health plan qualified to be sold through the Washington state health exchange in Clark and Cowlitz counties – which sounds simple but wasn't, he says. "We ran into some challenges."

He said he'll bring calm, open leadership to the high-stress job, which the Cover Oregon search committee found appealing. "I'm a really transparent and open kind of person," he said. "I think they took that as a breath of fresh air."

At the board meeting last week, board member George Brown praised Patnode's attitude and skills, saying he'd been a "turnaround artist" for Kaiser.

For Cover Oregon, Patnode says he'll have consumers' interests in mind first, but will also be responsive to insurance carriers needs. His priorities: About 80,000 people who have enrolled in private plans will need to reenroll in November to maintain coverage next year. He'll also need to help with the transition to the federal exchange, after the state's effort to build its own exchange was unsuccessful -- leading a likely lawsuit against the main technology vendor, Oracle Corp.

Patnode says he looks forward to working with lawmakers and others on what happens next for Cover Oregon, which was set up by the Legislature as a semi-independent public corporation, apart from state government. Cover Oregon board members are mulling whether they should continue as an independent organization, and will present to the Legislature next September.

Patnode calls it the big "looming question." But he is betting that the organization sticks around as an engine to expand coverage. "I do think there is a place for it as an organization. I think the challenge will be figuring out what pieces of the organization live with the federal exchange, and what pieces stay with the state."

"There's no guarantee in terms of how long the organization will be around, but my intent is to take what I see in the value of Cover Oregon and build it into a longer term kind of vision."

©2014 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)