Walden calls for federal investigation of Cover Oregon

By Jayson Jacoby, The Baker City Herald

By Andrew Clevenger

WesCom News Service

WASHINGTON - Four members of the House, including Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, on Wednesday called upon the Government Accountability Office to investigate the handling of taxpayer funds by Cover Oregon, the state's troubled health care exchange.

Although the federal government has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the development of Oregon's exchange, it was not ready for its Oct. 1 launch and remains unable to enroll users in health care plans online as intended.

"It's time to get to the truth. It's time to get transparency and accountability," Walden told The (Bend) Bulletin on Wednesday. "This cannot be swept under the rug. That's why I think it's really important to get an independent look through the GAO, so they can give us a factual view of what transpired and what we can get back."

According to the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, Oregon received more than $300 million in federal grants to create the Cover Oregon exchange.

That includes a $226.4 million phase two grant in January 2013 to cover expenses related to testing, training and implementation of the online exchange.

In a letter to U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, Walden and the others asked the GAO to investigate how the funds were used, whether the federal government can recoup any of its grant money and what additional costs have been incurred because of Cover Oregon's failed launch. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., Health subcommittee Chairman Joe Pitts, R-Pa., and Oversight and Investigations subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy, R-Pa., also signed the Feb. 12 letter.

"Although the rollout of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) has been problematic nationwide, no state has had more complications than Oregon," the letter reads. "We are only now learning that Cover Oregon's architects have known of the program's design flaw for years."

Last month, Gov. John Kitzhaber told a gathering of reporters and editors he received assurances throughout Cover Oregon's development that the project would be completed on time. In December, Kitzhaber hired an outside firm to conduct an independent review of Cover Oregon.

While the state has spent $160 million on Cover Oregon, the involvement of more than $300 million of federal funds warrants a federal investigation, Walden said.

"The GAO has a stellar reputation for being independent, and this is federal money," he said. "Did the agencies in Washington do their jobs before they released the money? Was their oversight adequate or pathetic?"

The amount the federal government allocated to Cover Oregon is more than three times Oregon's share of last year's county timber payments under the Secure Rural Schools program, which totaled around $100 million, Walden said.

"There are allegations of fraud and misrepresentation. We need answers," he said. "It's time to understand what went wrong."

Walden said he has "every confidence" the GAO will proceed with the requested investigation. Having the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman and three subcommittee chairmen sign the letter is "a powerful statement of our interest," he said.

A GAO spokesman said Wednesday that the agency had not yet received any requests regarding Cover Oregon.

Nationwide, more than 1 million people enrolled in health insurance plans in January, according to new figures released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Since Oct. 1, almost 3.3 million people have signed up, 1.9 million through the federal health care exchange healthcare.gov, and 1.3 million through state-run exchanges.

Of those 1.3 million, 33,808 were in Oregon.

"This is an embarrassment for the state to have a website like this that doesn't function. It's extraordinary mismanagement," Walden said.

Walden plans to discuss the letter Thursday in Medford, alongside state Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point. Richardson is running for governor against Kitzhaber, and Walden credited Richardson with being one of the few legislators in Salem who tried to conduct due diligence on Cover Oregon.

"He's the one individual who has consistently from the beginning raised red flags," Walden said. Richardson was "the one person in Salem who said, 'There's a problem here, you better have checks and balances here, you better take a look at this, this isn't working right.' And his warnings were ignored."

Last month, the National Republican Committee filed public records requests involving state exchanges in Oregon, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and Minnesota. All of those states have Democratic governors, three of whom, including Kitzhaber, are running for re-election in 2014.

The question, Buckley, of Ashland, said, is whether "voters are tired of prohibition."

"Do the voters believe prohibition has done more harm than good? If so, then they will vote yes, they wish to end prohibition," Buckley said, adding he believes the answer is voters are ready to legalize the drug.

Doug Harcleroad, a former Lane County district attorney, opposes the measure, testifying he's not only opposed to legalization of recreational marijuana but this measure puts the "cart before the horse."

"What Senate Bill 1556 does is ask voters, 'Do you want to legalize it and then we'll figure out how to regulate it, rather than say, 'Here's how we can effectively regulate and deal with the unintended adverse consequences.'"

The measure would make it legal for those older than 21 to use and produce recreational marijuana. Lawmakers took no action on either measure.

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