Cover Oregon review expanded to include former project manager, key lawmakers

Cover Oregon review expanded to include former project manager, key lawmakers
Carolyn Lawson (left) will be included in the state’s review of Cover Oregon’s failed launch, the KATU On Your Side Investigators have learned. (Photo from Oracle's website)

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The KATU On Your Side Investigators have learned Carolyn Lawson, the former Oregon Health Authority project manager most responsible for building Cover Oregon’s online insurance exchange, will now be included in the state’s review of the website’s failed launch.

Lawson’s name was originally left off the list of “key stakeholders” to be interviewed by First Data Corp., the Atlanta-based tech firm hired by Gov. John Kitzhaber to perform an independent analysis of Cover Oregon’s botched Oct. 1, 2013 rollout, despite numerous critical reports of her project management.

The ‘IT’ girl

As KATU first reported, Lawson – considered one of the best government IT administrators in the country – had a close working relationship with the website’s developer, Oracle Corp., praising the company’s software and support services in official Oracle publications and press releases, and appearing at Oracle leadership conferences – even as OHA and Cover Oregon staff struggled to establish even basic site functionality. Lawson resigned in December, the day after KATU pressed OHA officials to grant access to her for an on-the-record interview.

Since those reports, information in documents uncovered by KATU suggests that Lawson’s development team may have falsified their progress to federal reviewers, who were funding the project through a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services $48 million “Early Innovator” grant, part of the Affordable Care Act.

Former Republican state Rep. Patrick Sheehan, who sat on the Joint Committee on Legislative Audits, Information Management and Technology (JCLAIMT), says he went to the FBI in December 2012, when he learned of similar allegations through software industry sources. The FBI will neither confirm nor deny Sheehan’s account, or if it’s conducting an investigation into Cover Oregon.

The KATU On Your Side Investigators also revealed the serious concerns voiced by top Oregon government officials, that Lawson’s office had lost control of the project’s budget, and could not show how she had spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on Oracle (and it wasn’t the first time Lawson had been questioned about how she managed state IT contracts). Total funding for Cover Oregon now tops $300 million, and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, has called on the Government Accountability Office to audit how that money was spent. The GAO is still considering the request, according to spokesman Chuck Young.

More “stakeholders” identified

Matt Shelby, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Administrative Services, says DAS is still working to schedule a specific date for Lawson’s interview with First Data, which is seeking to understand:

  • When exactly state officials realized the website wouldn't launch on time,
  • Who determined whether Lawson and her team were qualified to manage the Cover Oregon project on their own,
  • Why Oregon chose to use Oracle Corp. products and consulting services,
  • What was the framework for government oversight and accountability on the project and whether it was effective,
  • Whether the project’s massive scope – which included restructuring how residents accessed all of Oregon’s social and health services online, and not just insurance, doomed the project.

The interview list has also been expanded to include more than a dozen more state and elected officials connected with the Cover Oregon project – among them, members of the Cover Oregon Board, JCLAIMT Chairman Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, and Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, who was an early critic of the Cover Oregon project.

Richardson, the likely GOP gubernatorial candidate, personally warned Kitzhaber a year before Cover Oregon’s failed launch about the development problems. That information came directly from the state’s non-partisan IT analyst, Bob Cummings, who’s also added to the First Data list. There’s also an additional interview with representatives of Maximus, the quality assurance firm which began raising red flags about the project as far back as November 2011.

Paging Dr. Kitzhaber

Though two of his top advisers have been questioned about the project, Kitzhaber is still not on the latest First Data “stakeholder” list. Kitzhaber originally declared he was unaware of the website’s problems until October of 2013; he now maintains that he was made of aware of problems with the website back in 2012, but says he was assured they were being addressed.

However, Kitzhaber says he won’t know who misled him about the website’s progress or what really went wrong until the First Data investigation is complete. Cover Oregon officials say they are focused on fixing the website, not any investigation, in hopes of signing up as many people as possible for health insurance before open enrollment ends March 31.

This week, Cover Oregon announced some progress, opening the online exchange to insurance agents and community partners – but individuals are still unable to access the site on their own.

Full coverage of the troubled Cover Oregon website: