Congress should uncover the truth about Cover Oregon

One of the most contentious parts of the Affordable Care Act – or Obamacare – continues to be state-specific health insurance exchanges. Before the law even took effect, many states sensed they were being lured into an expensive and unwieldy trap and refused to create their own exchanges, instead leaving the task to the federal government. Other states took the federal money and tried to build home-grown exchanges, some losing millions of taxpayer dollars in the process. And then there’s Oregon – a state that will prove the textbook example of how and why health exchanges can go wrong.

Oregon’s version of an exchange – dubbed “Cover Oregon” – is finally dead after Gov. Kate Brown (D) recently signed a bill to put the disastrous program out of its misery.  It had been on life support for months since it “flopped so badly that state officials decided last year to scrap it entirely and route Oregonians looking for health insurance through the federal Web site,” according to the Washington Post.

But this isn’t the end of the story for Cover Oregon. Taxpayers should remain concerned about the role that disgraced former Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) played in the debacle. As many are aware, Kitzhaber experienced an embarrassing and rapid fall from grace after revelations that he and his fiancée may have leveraged his position for personal financial gain.

Though he resigned last month, his troubles may have just begun, as there are currently at least four federal and state investigations looking into his past activities. If only taxpayers were given the benefit of hindsight with the state’s scandalous health care scheme, which was backed by $305 million in federal grants.

Press reports suggest the process of cobbling together Cover Oregon was strongly influenced by political advisors, who were not state employees, but instead working for Kitzhaber’s reelection campaign. The Willamette Weekly notes: “emails show Kitzhaber’s campaign consultants in the past 10 months drove state policy to an unusual degree.” Further, according to sources, “consultants for his re-election campaign orchestrated the decision to shut down Cover Oregon and switch to the federal health care exchange.” 

Thankfully, the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has begun to look into the matter. In a letter to Kitzhaber, members of the Committee noted reports that suggest “the decision to close Cover Oregon may have been based on politics, not policy, and campaign advisors working on your re-election campaign may have coordinated the State’s response to the Cover Oregon rollout.”

This investigation is a very important one for taxpayers – it could determine exactly how the State of Oregon managed to spend nearly a third of a billion dollars on a program that provided absolutely no benefit to the residents of the state. Although these funds are not likely to be recovered in their entirety (if at all), that doesn’t make the probe an academic exercise. The lessons learned from Oregon’s fiasco could be applied to any number of large government information technology projects involving consumer data and interaction with citizens.

For the sake of taxpayers in Oregon and across the United States, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee must piece together how the Beaver State’s health exchange managed to collapse like a poorly built dam. With billions of future tax dollars at stake, it’s time to uncover the truth about Cover Oregon.

Arnold is executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union.


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