Here are four reasons the Cover Oregon collapse matters to everyone

Of the thousands of comments we’ve received on our coverage of the Cover Oregon website debacle, the vast majority are divided into two camps.

On one hand, there’s the right-leaning camp that didn’t like the Affordable Care Act in the first place. They’re upset because they see the website’s failed launch as validation that universal health care was a bad idea in the first place.

On the other, there’s the left-leaning camp that’s been invested in public healthcare from the get-go. They’re upset at KATU for focusing on the failed launch rather than the ultimate goal of getting health care for people who need it.

Both groups are right to be upset – but it would be useful to reexamine the reasons.

Or, at least, to understand the reasons KATU has made this coverage such a high priority.

For Democrats who invested years of passion, political capital, credibility and money putting together what would ultimately become the ACA, it’s a failure by their own party to execute the hard-won law once the goal was in sight.

For Republicans, it’s a failure by the opposition to prudently spend taxpayer money. The $200 million website might never work, largely because early and frequent warnings from those in the know went unheeded.

Here are four more reasons the Cover Oregon collapse should matter to Republicans, Democrats and independents alike.

The politics don’t matter anymore. 

Every taxpayer in Oregon has contributed to the sizable investment the state has made in Cover Oregon.

Its board has said there’s a very real chance either all or part of the website could be scrapped in favor of joining either the federal or state exchange - meaning taxpayers’ $200 million might have gone for nothing.

And ultimately, people’s healthcare is at stake. In a very real way, it’s a matter of life and death.

The state of Oregon – more than most states – was set up to effectively deliver universal health care, and the failure of the website is going to make it much more difficult to implement in the short- and medium-term. 

KATU News has been able to help several individuals who contacted us about the problems they had signing up for health insurance through Cover Oregon, but those are just a handful of the stories of desperation out there.

Meanwhile, the young, healthy enrollees the state needs to hold rates down are also those mostly likely to choose online enrollment over paper enrollment – meaning premiums might be unreasonably high next year.

The Oregon Health Plan is one of the best state Medicaid programs in the nation (thanks in no small part to Kitzhaber). The voters have expressed a clear desire to provide robust public insurance – and they didn’t get what they asked and paid for.

“This is not about the politics of whether you support the Affordable Care Act,” said KATU News Director Tiffani Lupenski. “This is about a program that people in Oregon wanted and needed and that the state failed to deliver as promised.”

The failure of management at the highest levels calls into question the state’s ability to handle major projects.

Cover Oregon was both one of the most important and most high-profile initiatives undertaken by the state during Gov. John Kitzhaber’s three terms.

If there was ever a job to get right, this was it.

And yet the project has been a disaster. We at KATU are often asked why we’re covering this story so doggedly. Why, the line of reasoning goes, aren’t we focusing on the people who now have insurance through paper enrollment, or offering solutions for the looming task of getting the website up and running?

The fact is the website has thus far been a costly and important failure. While it’s true that fixing the website is of the utmost importance, fixing the website isn’t our job. Our job is to hold the powerful people who make life-and-death decisions accountable for those decisions, and to help ensure costly mistakes aren’t repeated.

That, for instance, is why we have shined a bright light on the monthly reports from Maximus, the independent quality-assurance company the state hired. The state spent significant taxpayer money contracting Maximus to raise the alarm if the project went off the rails.

Maximus did what it was contracted to do, raising the alarm, early and often. Yet all those alarms went unheeded both by the governor’s office and those in charge of Cover Oregon.

So the question is, why did the state bother going to the time and expense of hiring a quality-assessment contractor if its ample and accurate recommendations were going to be ignored?

It is, at best, an irresponsible use of taxpayer money. At worst, it shows an administration that was out of touch on a hugely important project.

It’s worth looking back at what happened because it raises an important question: If this job that was of unparalleled importance to the state of Oregon and the governor’s own party was handled so poorly, will you trust him to execute big projects in the future?

Speaking of the governor, his shifting narrative has been troubling.

Last Thursday, KATU News ran a story challenging Kitzhaber’s claim in early January – to us, to the Oregonian, and to the Portland Business Journal – that he didn’t know the website was in trouble until late October, after it launched.

Kitzhaber knew the story was coming because we told him it was coming. We sent his office this email earlier in the week telling him what the story was about and inviting him to comment.

A few hours before the story aired, Kitzhaber did an abrupt about-face.  He stated at the annual legislative preview event that he’d known about problems with the Cover Oregon website from the start, but that he was “misled” and “told until the 11th hour” that the problems would be remedied.

“It’s important for viewers to know that the morning our investigative report was to come out – that very morning – suddenly, his narrative changed,” Lupenski said. “It’s disingenuous for Gov. Kitzhaber to now say he’s been upfront with Oregonians all along about his knowledge of what went wrong.”