What doomed Cover Oregon? 'Mismanagement,' say former employees

What doomed Cover Oregon? 'Mismanagement,' say former employees

PORTLAND, Ore. – It turns out, the very first problem with Cover Oregon was also the worst – and the problem that would doom it to becoming perhaps the worst health-care rollout in the nation.

KATU talked to current and former employees of the project and reviewed thousands of pages of documents, and found that people in charge ultimately bit off far more than they could chew.

Larry Ridgley worked for the state as a business analyst for 15 months before becoming one of the hordes of professionals to call it quits on the project.

“I don't believe the state understood the complex nature of what they were embarking upon,” he said. “Mismanagement, mismanagement, mismanagement all the way around."

The project’s scope was, in fact, the first “risk” self-identified in internal documents. It was labeled risk R-0001 on May 4, 2012, the first in a list of well over 100 risks Cover Oregon has encountered since its inception.

'High-risk initiative'

Blistering monthly reports from independent auditor MAXIMUS uniformly take aim at the project’s momentous scope. In large part, Cover Oregon’s problems stemmed from a decision to combine its reboot with the Department of Human Services’ effort to streamline its own systems.

By August 2012, MAXIMUS labeled the entire project high risk.

“There was broad consensus by the individuals interviewed that this is a high risk initiative, operating in an uncertain and fluid environment, under a very aggressive timeline,” an Aug. 1 report read.

A year later, things were no less dire.

“The organization, its processes and people will be under tremendous stress as the launch date nears,” MAXIMUS reported. “Extra care should be taken by executive management to monitor for signs of stress and intervene to ensure personnel health and organizational morale during this period.”

None of this comes as a surprise to Ridgley, whose job originally was to compile software requirements for people who needed state assistance through the Department of Human Services.

Ridgley said poor coordination and lack of strong management meant projects fizzled once the agencies combined efforts.

“We were kind of left in the eligibility world to kind of twiddle our thumbs,” he said. “That's what I felt like I was doing the last few months I was there - trying to come up with something to do.

"One person spent a good portion of their time on Facebook because they had no assignments."

Ridgley said the problem can be traced to a decision not to hire a systems integrator – somebody responsible for navigating a project so complex and keeping contractors in line. 

Ridgley said that lack of strong overarching oversight was bound to bring such a massive project to a standstill.

"They were hindered because of management by consensus,” he said. “It’s pressure, pressure, pressure, and the pressure is like trying to move a mountain with a shovel when you're dealing with the state with the bureaucracy. That's where I think the problem lies."

Carolyn Lawson steps down

The woman responsible for the decision to combine Cover Oregon with the other project stepped down last Friday. Chief Information Officer Carolyn Lawson was known for grandiose ideas, including her decision to bring in those with great intentions rather than those with the best qualifications.

"I sent out an email to everybody - I did not care if you were a receptionist on the help desk or a senior engineer,” she told the Center for Digital Government. “I said, ‘We are going to have enterprise architecture training. If you have an opportunity to change this organization forever, who is in? If you are in, send me your résumé.’”

Again, this is a familiar refrain to Ridgley.

“They didn't ask us, who had the experience, how we should be involved,” he said. "We had project managers who came in who were clueless."

Indeed, Lawson seemed not to know the project was spiraling out of control – or at least chose to overlook it.

At a hearing a year ago before the Joint Committee on Legislative Audits, Information Management and Technology, she went before an oversight committee with executive director Rocky King and said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the project.

"We are very aggressively going after the risks,” she said. “Even with the number of risks that we have we are still on target."

And yet those risks continued to pile up. Several former contractors who talked to KATU News said Lawson didn’t take those risks – or other issues – seriously. MAXIMUS audits show a slew of high-risk items that were identified very early on and yet lingered long enough to bring down the project.

King, who stepped down last month, reflected the same confidence despite mounting internal evidence that Cover Oregon was in serious trouble.

At that same hearing last year, he told the oversight committee that Oregon was running at roughly same pace as the rest of the nation and that he was confident the exchange would be ready in time.

"If we don't make it, there's 46-something other states that aren't going to be making it,” King said. “So we're all going to be going back there in covered wagons to ask for a little more time."

Meanwhile, legislative analyst Bob Cummings warned of impending problems, but his recommendations were downplayed or ignored.

Cover Oregon is the only independent exchange in the country that isn’t working yet, and it’s spent all of the $48 million grant money the federal government allocated to help it combine its IT projects.

It’s still an open question where the money to finish the project will come from.

Neither Cover Oregon nor the Oregon Health Authority responded to requests for comment.

“I would say today that I am sad that we didn't accomplish what we wanted to do,” Ridgley said.