Oregon Legislature Approves Bills Aimed at Fixing Ills at Insurance Exchange

By | March 6, 2014

Two bills aimed at rectifying the problems at Cover Oregon and avoiding repeats in the future advanced in the Oregon Legislature, garnering overwhelming support despite warnings from critics that they will have little effect.

The Senate voted to require that large information technology projects have an outside quality assurance contractor, and the House backed a measure requiring Cover Oregon to seek more flexibility from the federal government.

Cover Oregon’s online enrollment system was not ready to launch on schedule in October, creating headaches for people trying to sign up for insurance under the new federal health care law. The state said this week it would pay $44 million of the $70 million it’s withheld from the main technology contractor, Oracle Corp.

The bill approved in the Senate would require technology projects costing more than $5 million to have an independent contractor evaluate the plans and report its findings to the Department of Administrative Services.

Cover Oregon had such a contractor, but its warnings were dismissed or ignored. Proponents say the bill would help ensure extra oversight of important projects and make it more likely that issues get addressed.

Not everyone was convinced.

“This bill will not hold anyone accountable, anyone responsible for the next IT debacle,” said Sen. Doug Whitsett, a Republican from Klamath Falls who voted against the bill. “It is a step in the right direction, but it will not prevent the next IT disaster.”

The measure, HB 4122, passed the Senate 25-5, sending it back to the House, which approved it last month but must sign off on changes made in the Senate.

The House approved a separate measure, HB 4154, that would order Cover Oregon to seek flexibility from the federal government to ensure people don’t face penalties or miss out on federal subsidies because of the struggles with Cover Oregon.

Cover Oregon would be required to seek a one-month extension of the deadline for people to sign up for health insurance before they incur a fine. It also would require the state to seek federal permission for Oregon residents to earn tax credits if they purchase coverage directly from an insurance company.

The state is already seeking approval for both steps, and the Obama administration said last week it would grant tax credits to people who went around the exchange. Even so, Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, said it’s important for the Oregon Legislature to put its support on the record.

The House approved the measure in a 56-2 vote, sending it to the Senate.

The sponsor, Democratic Rep. Shemia Fagan of Clackamas, acknowledged that her bill won’t completely fix the problems of the past or ensure repeats are prevented, but she said it would still provide some measure of relief to Oregonians.

“This bill is not a time machine,” she said. “We can’t hop in this bill and turn back the dial and change how Cover Oregon was rolled out. It was nothing short of an embarrassment for the state we all love.”

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