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Cover Oregon HIX Notches Another Political Casualty with IT Director's Resignation

Aaron Karjala submitted his resignation on March 31.

by Nick Budnick, McClatchy News Service / April 1, 2014
Aaron Karjala, former top IT manager for the Cover Oregon health insurance exchange Bruce Foster Photography

Aaron Karjala, the top information technology manager for the Cover Oregon health insurance exchange, resigned Monday, adding to the list of the exchange's political casualties.

Gov. John Kitzhaber on March 20 announced he'd accepted the resignation of his top health-care administrator, Bruce Goldberg, and also urged the appointed board of Cover Oregon to remove Karjala as well as Triz delaRosa, the exchange's chief operating officer.

Oregon's exchange remains the only one in the country that does not let the public self-enroll for health coverage in a single-sitting, despite more than $200 million spent so far. State officials are now considering whether to put the project on a shelf and instead use the federal exchange for the next enrollment period starting this November.

Oregon's problems have garnered national media attention, and the governor has said he expects the Cover Oregon fiasco to be a significant issue in his bid for re-election later this year. Kitzhaber has sought to strike a chord of accountability in his public remarks, faulting bad decisions by top managers and calling for fresh eyes to evaluate the exchange's situation.

Technically speaking, the board of Cover Oregon -- a semi-independent public corporation -- had no authority to remove Karjala or delaRosa. Under its governance structure, it only can hire or fire an executive director. Following Kitzhaber's remarks, board members let acting director Goldberg know he had their support in whatever actions he took, said board director Liz Baxter.

Karjala, a 39-year-old University of Oregon graduate, served as chief information officer for the exchange since August 2011, when the project started out with a small group of true believers working out of a house in Salem. Karjala in an earlier interview recalled one of his first tasks: setting up desktop computers so they could tackle their work.

Building the exchange, however, was not Karjala's job. The Oregon Health Authority, a state agency, was supposed to deliver Karjala a working, bug-free exchange by March 31, 2013.

Instead, OHA realized it was running out of money in April 2013, turning over a deeply flawed, bug-ridden and largely unfinished project to a Cover Oregon team that was understaffed and ill-prepared for a rescue mission, according to documents and numerous interviews.

When the extent of the exchange's problems began to surface in May, Karjala and his former boss, Rocky King, chose to try to salvage the project rather than raise external alarms.

They eventually chose to believe the assurances of the project's main IT vendor, Oracle Corp., that it could deliver a working exchange despite private misgivings over whether that was true, documents show.

Karjala and King -- who resigned for medical reasons earlier this year -- had blamed weak OHA contracts and poor work by Oracle Corp., the main IT vendor, for some of the mess. Those conclusions have been echoed by independent reports in recent weeks.

Already, Karjala's counterpart at the Oregon Health Authority, Carolyn Lawson, was asked to resign over the exchange fiasco in December. She had beaten Karjala out for the OHA top job in July 2011, and the two clashed during the project, documents show.

Karjala has agreed to stay four to six weeks to assist in a transition. Baxter, the Cover Oregon board chair, said that even after Kitzhaber's March 20 announcement, Karjala "continued to work with integrity to try to keep people covered."

In the meantime, Alex Pettit, the recently hired state CIO, has agreed to step in for Karjala.

Goldberg, Cover Oregon's acting director, earlier this month resigned his permanent position with the Oregon Health Authority as well as his Cover Oregon post. He will stay on until his successor at the exchange is hired.

©2014 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

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