Walden joins call for audit of Cover Oregon

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden demanded a federal audit Thursday over the failed launch of Oregon's new health care system and what he said was the potential squandering of $300 million in federal funds.

"This is an issue about potential waste, fraud and abuse," he said.

The senior Republican Congressman was joined in his Medford office by state Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, who is running for governor.

Richardson has been pressuring state officials for answers about the lack of oversight of Cover Oregon, which is this state's version of the Affordable Care Act.

Almost 5,000 signatures have been collected on a petition by Richardson calling on the federal Government Accountability Office to audit Cover Oregon.

"We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and we have nothing to show for it," Richardson said.

The GAO has not yet indicated that it will conduct the audit. Walden said he is confident it will, based on the number of his Republican colleagues in Congress demanding an audit.

The Associated Press reported that GAO spokesman Chuck Young said in an email that it takes weeks to evaluate a request, and the office had made no decision yet.

Cover Oregon spokesman Michael Cox said in an email to AP that he had no comment.

Richardson has laid much of the blame for the ineffective rollout of Cover Oregon on Kitzhaber, who is paying auditing firm First Data of Atlanta $228,000 to conduct an independent review.

Richardson said the governor's response is to throw more money at the problem with the audit.

Richardson said he'd been warning of potential problems with Cover Oregon since 2011.

He said Kitzhaber publicly has stated he became aware of problems with Cover Oregon in October 2013.

But Richardson said he contacted the governor by email and later by phone on Sept. 10, 2012.

"Over the phone I explained to him that this project was doomed to fail unless he took responsibility and assured that there was proper oversight and changes were made," Richardson said.

He said Kitzhaber told him that the problems would be addressed.

Kitzhaber, in an email response to some of the charges, said, "Congress will do what Congress will do, so long as it does not slow Oregonians in getting the coverage they need."

He said that despite the problems, the health care system has enrolled 226,000 people in affordable health care using parts of the website that do work. He said the number of uninsured Oregonians has been reduced by 20 percent.

"No one is angrier than I am that the Cover Oregon website has not launched as planned," Kitzhaber said. "No one wants to get to the bottom of this more than I do."

Cover Oregon already has new leadership, and Kitzhaber vowed to make more changes if progress isn't made.

Richardson said Cover Oregon signed up 34,000 Oregonians through its private insurance program. The remaining expansion has been accomplished through an expansion of Medicaid, he said.

Cover Oregon's website was supposed to launch on Oct. 1, 2013, but hasn't been working despite efforts by tech giant Oracle. Instead of an electronic portal to fill out forms, Oregonians have been filling out paper documents, forcing the state to hire 400 employees to process the applications.

The Oregon House this week proposed two bills that attempt to correct problems with Cover Oregon.

Because the website hasn't worked, Oregonians have signed up for health insurance through private insurers. As a result, under federal law, they can't claim a tax credit. House Bill 4154 would allow Cover Oregon to seek a federal waiver to allow these Oregonians to receive the tax break.

House Bill 4122 would place safeguards to prevent any future failures with technology contracts and require independent review of contracts of more than $5 million.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

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