Ore. health official in charge of building Cover Oregon website resigns

Ore. health official in charge of building Cover Oregon website resigns
From left to right: Carolyn Lawson; Bob Ladouceur, information system applications manager; and Dane Wilson, information systems specialists. (Photo from Oracle's website)

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The woman responsible for overseeing the bulk of Cover Oregon's website development has resigned.

An email sent Thursday to the staff of the OHA/DHS Office of Information Services announced that Chief Information Officer Carolyn Lawson was resigning for personal reasons.
 
Lawson’s resignation comes a day after the KATU On Your Side Investigators asked her for an interview; weeks of investigation and analysis had uncovered new documents showing a much closer relationship between Lawson and Cover Oregon website developer, Oracle, than had been previously disclosed.
 
Lawson was also making outrageously sunny claims about her work on the online exchange that in hindsight sound like outright lies.
 
The 'IT' Girl
 
When she first came to Oregon in July 2011, the hire – to oversee computer IT projects for both the Department of Human Services and the Oregon Health Authority – was a huge win for Oregon. Lawson had an outstanding record modernizing state computer systems in California , and she said she hoped to repeat that success here.
 
But KATU was the first to report that Lawson's grand vision overly complicated the Cover Oregon project and also identified her over reliance on Oracle's expertise; for its part, Oracle was proud to advertise its business relationship with Lawson
 
In Praise of Oracle
 
In a lavish, Oracle-produced profile from the November 2012 issue of its in-house publication, “Profit,” Lawson described her plans to build an exchange, while simultaneously modernizing Oregon’s entire online social service delivery system - from Medicaid to food stamps.
 
“We’ve used the insurance exchange to rethink how we can best deliver services across our IT environment,” Lawson said. “It’s a catalyst for organizational transformation.”
 
And she was quick to credit Oracle for showing the way: “The Oracle team helped us see the issues philosophically before we approached the practical aspects of the project. … Oracle gave us a new perspective on the challenges at hand. Their support has been invaluable."
 
She also praised the company's products in an October 2012 Oracle press release, saying "Oregon is 90 percent finished with federal health insurance exchange requirements... we worked very closely with Oracle to build our enterprise architecture and solution: it was the catalyst for change."
 
Just a few months later, another Oracle affiliated publication announced Oregon’s Health Insurance Exchange IT (HIX-IT) project was all done – and done well.
 
In a January 2013 conversation with the Center for Digital Government, Lawson is credited with spearheading "successful modernization efforts" and building "a health insurance exchange... on a short deadline." The article concludes, "The results have been great and Oregon is well positioned to be a national leader in this critical space."
 
Ignoring the Warnings?
 
Nowhere is it mentioned that the scheduled Cover Oregon “go live” date was actually months off, nor are there any references to the massive programming problems the project was facing at the time – problems Lawson had herself outlined in her own December 2012 IT report to the Oregon Legislature's Joint Committee on Legislative Audits, Information Management, and Technology.
 
The HIX-IT project update included a risk assessment from the exchange's quality assurance contractor, MAXIMUS.
 
Its assessors had already determined that:
  • The Cover Oregon website may not be ready in time
  • The project suffered from instability due to staffing shortages and people leaving the project
  • OHA, DHS, and Cover Oregon were operating without any accountability.
Control of the HIX-IT project shifted to the semi- autonomous Cover Oregon “corporation” in May 2013 – earlier than expected – because Lawson had burned through all of her funding: a $48 million 'early innovator' grant the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare services had awarded Oregon back in 2011 (total cost of online-exchange project now tops $90 million, when Cover Oregon’s spending is included).
 
"An Undeserved Amount of Arrogance"
 
Far from the “great” results mentioned in the CDG article, the web project she handed off with Oracle was unusable and unintelligible, according to emails uncovered by KATU.
 
In one May 3 message, Ying Kwong, a state IT oversight coordinator assigned to the project, wrote, "I cannot interpret the information as presented by Oracle and would suggest no one can." 
 
A later email from John Cvetko, another quality assurance contractor hired by Cover Oregon, blasted Oracle for having "a undeserved amount of arrogance," and "non-existent" engineering processes. "Their overall technical skill levels are questionable," he said.
 
Such assessments were supported by an internal report by Cover Oregon staff which showed there were dozens if not hundreds of bugs in the program - and just four months to fix them.
 
"We Will All Look Dumb"
 
But neither Lawson, nor then Cover Oregon Executive Director Rocky King shared staffers’ concerns with the public - that information only came to light after a KATU public records request last month.
 
Another public records request by KATU showed the final, desperate attempts by Cover Oregon to salvage anything at all from the website as the Oct. 1 “go live” deadline drew near. Rocky King wrote to Oracle Sept. 18, pleading with the company to assign programmers to at least clean up the website’s obvious errors.
 
“We do not want to be dismissed before we even begin with a myriad of spelling, wrong labels, field sizes not right, drab pages, links that don't work, etc. we will all look dumb and it will come across as an amateur site," King wrote.
 
Oracle's Featured Speaker
 
Carolyn Lawson was also talking about Oracle's IT design in September. Lawson was a featured speaker at Oracle's Enterprise Architecture Summit Sept. 24 and 25 of this year - sitting in on the ‘customer panel’ and later talking about ‘improved service delivery.’
 
The online exchange is still not ready for public use.
 
Rocky King was subjected to withering criticism for his handling of the Cover Oregon program;  after a particularly grueling legislative hearing in late October, he emailed a colleague "I'm going out to buy a dog so I have one friend!" King stepped aside last month, citing health reasons, and is on medical leave.
 
KATU made repeated attempts to contact Lawson before she stepped down; besides the email it sent, it also texted her on her state-issued cellphone and her Blackberry, but received no replies. It also called her office to speak to a scheduler - but before it could request a meeting, the staffer told KATU she was not allowed to speak to the media.
 
KATU has repeatedly asked Oracle about the HIX-IT project and Cover Oregon, but the company has declined all those requests for comment; a message sent to the company Thursday evening asking for more information about Oracle’s relationship with Carolyn Lawson was refused on Friday.
 
Cover-Up Oregon?
 
Asked whether KATU News could follow up with any one from the Oregon Health Authority, a spokesperson said the agency would have no comment Thursday night, outside of the official email announcing Lawson's resignation. The spokesperson did include information about Lawson’s salary: to date, Oregon has paid Lawson just under $179,000.
 
Gov. John Kitzhaber's office told KATU it does not comment on "personnel issues" and that someone would get back to the TV station on Friday, regarding a sit-down interview with the governor about Cover Oregon.
 
KATU reached out to Central Point state representative and Republican gubernatorial candidate Dennis Richardson - an early skeptic about the Cover Oregon project - for comment about Lawson's departure. He told KATU he believes Lawson knew long ago the website wouldn't be ready on time and covered it up.
 
"She had the experience and the knowledge and was in charge of it. So when it looked like it wasn't going to work she should have been disclosing that and saying we've got to cut back on the scope of this project," Richardson said. “She didn't do that. That's her responsibility. But it's also the responsibility of the governor."
 
Last week, Kitzhaber called for an independent review of Cover Oregon. He also hired a new state CIO, Oklahoma's Alex Pettit, to increase oversight of all state agency IT projects.

Full coverage of the troubled Cover Oregon website: