Field Notes

Cover Oregon and why doesn't anyone say they're sorry?

Carolyn Lawson would like you to feel sorry for her.

At least that’s the impression one gets from reading the notice she filed against the State of Oregon, the Oregon Health Authority, Cover Oregon and several officials letting them know she’s thinking of suing.

“She has endured significant financial loss and considerable emotional pain,” her lawyer writes.

Lawson, who was the Chief Information Officer for the Oregon Health Authority until she either resigned or was forced out – depending on whom you believe – has been one of the people most linked to the failure of the Cover Oregon website to get up and running on time.

“Individuals privately threatened and publicly scapegoated Ms. Lawson and ultimately terminated her employment,” her lawyer writes. “As a result of these wrongful acts, Ms. Lawson’s professional and personal reputation has suffered.”

Her lawyer claims that after Cover Oregon failed to launch in Oregon, Lawson wanted to tell “the real story” but was told not to; that Lawson was instructed to participate in a “cover-up.”

“She wanted the freedom to speak publicly about the truth regarding the Exchange’s failed launch and the reasons (as she saw them) for the failure,” her lawyer writes.

Instead of allowing her to speak up, which her lawyer said would have been an “important public service,” Lawson says she was told to stay quiet.

If Lawson didn’t, according to her lawyer she was told “Somebody has to be held to blame for this – it’s going to be (former Cover Oregon director Rocky King), or it’s going to be Oracle, or it’s going to be you. We want it to be Oracle, but it can be you if you want.”

Lawson’s lawyer writes that her client kept insisting she be allowed to tell the truth about the way things were and that resulted in her finally being told “You will be resigning today.”

It’s hard to doubt Lawson’s apparent assertions that Cover Oregon was a mess. Extensive reporting by my colleagues at KATU shows this to be the case.  And a report out last month by the Federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services does the same.

The report lists numerous problems:

  • Cover Oregon has "no overarching dedicated Project Manager who should be responsible for overseeing the project to drive overall project activities and keep everyone on track with targeted deliverables."
  • “It appears that there is not a clear understanding between Cover Oregon and OCS as to what the expected deliverables are; Cover Oregon’s attempts to correct programing bugs often created problems.”
  • "It appears that CO does not have any leverage in their contract to make OCS accountable for missing key deliverables."
  • "Cover Oregon demonstrated a significant lack of confidence in Oracle’s performance based on a variety of evidence, i.e.: An overall lack of timeliness and quality with regards to solution delivery and the clear and obvious lack of transparency.”

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has reason to be concerned. It gave $305 million in grants to help build the Cover Oregon exchange. And it's not the only federal agency paying attention – the General Accounting Office is conducting an audit.

Lawson’s lawyer wants you to believe Lawson was fired “because of her desire to speak publicly – and truthfully - about the mismanagement and substantial and specific danger to public health that might result.”

That might be true.

It would be easier to accept as truth had she made those assertions before others tried to blame her. If there really was a health crisis looming and she really saw coming forward as “an important public service” – why wait until she had a lawyer and was preparing to let people know she is thinking of suing?

It would also be easier to accept if at some point she had offered an apology of some sort – maybe a hint of regret – for only coming forward when it was her personal reputation that was being sullied.

She should not consider herself alone in that category.

It appears no one – from Gov. Kitzhaber to Cover Oregon Executive Director Rocky King to interim director Bruce Goldberg to Ms. Lawson – has taken the time to apologize to the people of Oregon for the debacle.

Don’t misunderstand – Cover Oregon has signed up plenty of people. There are, perhaps, tens of thousands of people with health insurance for the first time.

There are also many people who have had to go through unnecessary aggravation, families that have been split up into different programs, people who will see an interruption in their coverage.

And yet the response of those in charge has been to avoid accepting responsibility, avoid saying they are sorry for the way things have unfolded.

The closest to an apology has been Governor Kitzhaber saying if the voters want to hold him responsible, they can do so on Election Day.

At the same time, he asserted that he had been misled about the state of things.

Misled by whom, he was asked.

He said didn’t know and wouldn’t know until an investigation was done.

In the meantime, he took a slap at New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who was in the headlines for allegedly playing politics with people’s day to day lives by messing with traffic patterns.

“This isn’t New Jersey,” he said.

Nor, apparently, is it a place where leaders feel the need to say they are sorry.

Full coverage of the troubled Cover Oregon website: