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May 11, 2014
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Publisher’s Notebook: Maybe we have to blame our voting records for the Cover Oregon debacle

The people responsible for Oregon’s rise in the ranks of the incompetent didn’t elect themselves to office.

Voters placed their trust in those people, assuming they were smart enough to build a website that worked for less than $250 million.

So as we look for someone to blame for Cover Oregon — which has become the latest national poster child for government waste (and it takes a LOT of incompetence to top that list) — we need to look in the mirror.

Unfortunately, Oregonians are preparing to re-elect many of those responsible for that Colossal Cluster because, well, we just don’t seem to care anymore.

How bad was it, you ask? It was bad enough to put Oregon on the late-night talk show circuit, where a national audience got a good chuckle at our expense.

And all we could do was sit back and take it because it was that bad and we had it coming.

John Oliver, who hosts “Last Week Tonight” on HBO, had this to say about Cover Oregon:

“Oregon paid a quarter of a billion dollars for a website designed to sign people up for health care in one sitting and did that for exactly nobody and are now handing the keys over to Healthcare.gov. That has got to be a bitter pill to swallow for the people of Oregon, or it would be if they could get the pill, which they can’t because their (poopie) website is broken.”

He reminded his late-night audience that not all of the $250 million went to building the failed website.

“At least $3 million of it was spent on an adorable television commercial like this.”

He then showed a tape of the silly Cover Oregon commercial, the one with the lady playing the guitar while weird-looking people (probably Portlanders) stroll past holding signs.

“Long live the Oregon spirit.

“Long live the Oregon way.

“To care for each one, every daughter and son

“Long live Oregon.”

It would have made us rush out and sign up for health care just to shut them up, if the site actually worked.

“We get it,” Oliver said, when the commercial finished. “You people live in a cartoon. Your mountains are breathtaking. Your coffee is fair trade. And everywhere you go you hear the sounds of ukuleles. This is all very charming, until you waste tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money on a website that doesn’t work.”

Then he showed a different — funnier — version of the Cover Oregon commercial.

“Like artists in Portland

“Your site doesn’t work

“That 404 error is not just a quirk.

“You blew all our money on this stupid set

“So when you break a leg, try the neighborhood vet

“You stupid Oregon idiots

“Your fashion for cuteness might kill your whole state

“So long, Oregon.”

It’s pretty funny, unless you’re the ones paying bills. In fairness, most all of that $250 million came from the feds and, as we know, $250 million in federal money is chump change these days.

In terms of who’s responsible and why they haven’t been fired, or kicked out of office, I asked Tim Freeman for a little background. He’s running for county commissioner these days, but Freeman was there when the Legislature decided Oregon could better manage Affordable Care Act enrollments than the federal government.

In 2011 the Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 99, establishing Oregon’s own exchange. A year later that exchange was named Cover Oregon.

Website development was contracted to Oracle Corp. and managed by the state, rather than an independent systems integrator. Oregon would have at least had someone to sue had it gone that route.

When the January enrollment deadline hit, the state had spent nearly $160 million and the site could still not process enrollments. Officials told Oregon residents that they would be better off filling out paper applications, hiring and reassigning 500 people to process the paperwork.

They were hoping to eventually enter that data into the site, but the site would never work. Now those 200,000 or so people who filled out paperwork will likely have to do it again through the federal government.

As chair of the Legislature’s Ways & Means subcommittee on Human Services, Freeman held sway over the initial $48 million federal grant designed to fund the website design. He was concerned about the state’s ability to deliver from an IT standpoint and refused to move that grant forward.

“I had a list of nine concerns,” he told me.

The grant was eventually pulled from Freeman’s committee to the Legislature’s full Ways & Means Committee where it passed, despite Freeman’s objections.

Freeman would be one of only 17 Oregon lawmakers (five in the Senate and 12 in the House) to vote against SB 99 in 2011 and has every right to say, “I told you so,” today.

But he hasn’t.

He understands Oregon’s urgency to be the first state to launch a successful health exchange. “It’s the Oregon way,” he told me. “But we didn’t have a good track record when it comes to Information Technology and we didn’t need to be first.”

Freeman also said the federal government was so desperate to have any state roll out a health exchange that it really didn’t care how much it cost.

“We asked (the feds) all along, ‘What happens if it doesn’t work?’” Freeman recalled. “Do we have to repay the money? And the answer was always ‘no.’ There was really no accountability.”

We know that’s not true. In fact, this is an election year, so if we’re looking for accountability, this is our best shot. It’s the only time we have any say-so on how much of our money they flush down the toilet.

At the end of the day, we get the government we deserve.

Jeff Ackerman is publisher of The News-Review. He can be reached at 541-957-4263 or jackerman@nrtoday.com.


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The News-Review Updated May 12, 2014 01:22PM Published May 11, 2014 12:04AM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.