The House Health Committee debated Democratic plans to salvage the Cover Oregon insurance exchange yesterday, hearing several items that would require approval from the federal government to help Oregonians benefit from Obamacare who have been frustrated by the catastrophic rollout of the insurance exchange.
“We’ve had lots of time in this session to beat up on Cover Oregon,” said Rep. Shemia Fagan, the chief sponsor of House Bill 4154. Fagan is a freshman Democrat locked in a tough re-election bid in outer southeast Portland and Clackamas County. “This bill cuts through the politics and gives us all a chance to come through for Oregonians.”
HB 4154 extends the open enrollment for Cover Oregon through April, funds a temporary high-risk pool created by Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, seeks federal subsidies for qualified consumers and small businesses who shopped outside the exchange; gives whistleblower protections to Cover Oregon employees; and allows the governor to wipe clean the board members of the exchange.
For Oregon to extend the open enrollment period or offer federal subsidies to people outside the exchange, it would need a waiver from the Obama administration, which Kitzhaber already sought informally when he sent his health policy advisor, Sean Kolmer, to Washington, D.C., last month to meet with top officials in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Rep. Dennis Richardson, the Central Point Republican and leading candidate to battle Kitzhaber in the fall, made a surprise appearance at the House Health Committee, sitting on the dais next to Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem.
“I applaud the intent of the bill. It doesn’t go quite far enough,” said Richardson, who called for the exchange to be shut down, and the state to turn to the website portal of the federal exchange or another state. “There’s already systems that are working. This one is not working.”
Rep. Jim Weidner, R-McMinnville, asked for an amendment that would put into law Richardson’s request for a federal audit of Cover Oregon, but Clem mocked Weidner, asking if the Legislature could compel the federal government to audit the National Forest Service while they were at it.
Health Committee Chairman Rep. Mitch Greenlick agreed with Fagan that HB 4154 should move forward without getting larded up with controversial amendments. He told Richardson that he was wrong to assume that the federal exchange could just pick up the slack for Cover Oregon’s failings. “The federal exchange may not work. Some state have just one insurance carrier. We have 11,” said Greenlick.
However, some other states do have a large number of health insurance companies on their exchanges. California, which operates California Covered, has 12. Michigan, one of the states served by the federal exchange, has 10 health insurance carriers on its marketplace.
Rep. Jason Conger of Bend, another Republican who’s seeking statewide office — in this case the seat of U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley — pointed out that Fagan and other Democrats are not seeking anything that Kitzhaber hadn’t already asked from the Obama administration. “The website still doesn’t work. What happens if the website still doesn’t work by April 30?” he posited.
Cover Oregon lobbyist Dave Barenberg said the exchange has currently enrolled 35,000 people in private plans and 68,000 people in the state’s Medicaid program, the Oregon Health Plan. When the website failed, the exchange switched to paper applications, and now uses a hybrid process, where consumers can buy plans online after their eligibility has been determined through either a paper application or an electronic PDF document.
Acting Cover Oregon Director Dr. Bruce Goldberg told legislators last month that the insurance exchange would soon be running a number of tests with information technology contractor Oracle that would determine if the website could go live by the end of the enrollment period in March.
Conger scolded Barenberg for including the Medicaid enrollees, since Cover Oregon does not receive any money from those consumers and cannot rely on them to remain solvent: “I have rejected repeatedly to including Medicaid enrollment numbers in that figure. The business model when it was sold to us was that Cover Oregon would sell over 200,000 plans.”
Despite the challenges that Cover Oregon has using a hybrid system to enroll people, Melissa Unger of the Service Employees International Union testified about a Grants Pass woman who was kept afloat by Obamacare.
Sheri Hendrix was among the thousands of uninsured people who received health insurance on Jan. 1, but were still in the dark about whether their application went through.
Hendrix broke her ankle just after New Year’s and it took a fortnight for advocates at SEIU to help her determine that she did indeed have coverage through Moda Health, but the insurer was able to help her with her emergency medical bills.
“If she had fallen down the stairs on December 30th, she would have ended up with no insurance and with years of debt,” Unger said.
“We are building for the future, if we can find out how to make it work,” said Greenlick in his closing remarks.