At his first public appearance since his forced resignation, former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber said Sunday he plans to “get my name cleared” and then “reengage in the things I have always been passionate about: education, healthcare.” The man who Oregonians elected four times told the Gresham Outlook proudly, “I’ve got runway ahead and gas in the tank.”
The occasion for his reemergence was an event at Mt. Hood Community College honoring Junki and Linda Yoshida. The college was renaming a gym to honor the founder of Yoshida Foods International after the couple’s cool $1 million donation. Kitzhaber described the Yoshidas as his old friends. They are also his financial supporters, having given, for instance, $35,000 toward last year’s successful but disastrous reelection effort.
It was a success because Kitzhaber won. He beat Republican opponent Dennis Richardson by almost 6 percentage points. He didn’t quite get a majority because of third party candidates but Democrats could shrug that off with the excuse that it was such a heavily Republican year, nationally.
The election was a disaster because Kitzhaber couldn’t hold on to that tainted win. Scandals involving the governor and his fiancée and business partner, Oregon First Lady Cylvia Hayes, plagued the campaign. Richardson refused to concede on the night of the election, out of sheer dumb disbelief as much as anything else.
A federal probe into misspent funds, reporting from Oregon media, and pressure from his own party finally convinced Kitzhaber to throw in the towel as of February 18, only 38 days into his term. Future American political historians will likely use his campaign the new textbook example of a “Pyrrhic victory.”
For normal taxpaying Oregonians, it only gets worse from there. In the last Oregon Trial dispatch, we looked at the huge legal bills that Oregon could be stuck with to defend Kitzhaber and cronies and at the ongoing stamp his decisions are putting on state government.
At the time, there was a freeze on his nominations but unelected Governor Kate Brown had decided to let one of his healthcare nominees go through. Now she has asked the Oregon state senate to confirm all of his remaining nominees. That’s kind of shocking but we’re supposed to look away because Brown is now throwing up all manner of fairy dust by promising “ethics reform.”
Another one of Kitzhaber’s political decisions could cost Oregonians dearly, soon and at tax time next year. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of King v. Burwell. A decision is expected this summer. The case asks the court to decide how to interpret the text of the Affordable Care Act that fixes both fines and subsidies only to health insurance “exchanges” established by the “states.”
For our purpose, read “exchanges” as “websites,” because you can’t have one without the other these days. Several states never set up their own websites because Republicans were in charge and didn’t want them. Other solidly Democratic states, such as Oregon, started to set up their own websites that were plagued with problems similar to the disastrous, made-for-SNL rollout of the federal Obamacare website.
Oregon’s effort, Cover Oregon, was the bottom of the barrel. “Oregon’s Obamacare sign-up is an ‘epic failure’” blared a headline for Politico in November of 2013. “How Oregon wound up with the nation’s worst Obamacare Web site,” was the headline in the somewhat slower Washington Post in March, 2014.
These were headlines that Kitzhaber didn’t need and couldn’t afford as he tried for an unprecedented fourth term. He was a practicing medical doctor from the late ’70s to the mid-’80s. Much of his political career rested on a veneer of medical expertise.
Just take a whiff of the man’s Wikipedia bio and smell the latex gloves: “Kitzhaber became the Director of the Center for Evidence Based Policy at the Oregon Health & Science University, served as the Executive Chair and President at both the Foundation for Medical Excellence and the Estes Park Institute, and founded the health care advocacy group the Archimedes Movement.”
If any Democratic politician could get a health insurance website working by sheer force of his CV, it was Kitzhaber. But no. In spite of $300 million in federal funds to play with, the Cover Oregon site suffered one setback after another and finally collapsed in April of 2014.
Oregonians who had wanted to sign up through the state exchange were told to sign up through the U.S. Government website instead. No big loss, perhaps, except that if the Supreme Court decides the text of the Affordable Care Act actually means what it says then tens of thousands of Oregonians could suddenly find themselves without the subsidies that make Obamacare “affordable” — in some cases hiking premiums by 78 percent.
In theory, Oregon could get around such a ruling by reestablishing a healthcare exchange, but that takes time, money, and effort. And just this month the state decided to scrap Cover Oregon altogether.
Moreover, if Oregonians find that this unsubsidized fate has befallen them, they are going to go looking for explanations. The smart money says they are unlikely to be mollified by the answers. The liberal alt-weekly Willamette Week, in particular, has done yeoman’s work showing us how, when the Cover Oregon website ran into trouble, Kitzhaber treated it not as a technical problem to be solved but a political one to be punted.
Kitzhaber handed practical control of the site to top political aid Patricia McCaig, “who” — and we are not making this up — “liked to call herself the Princess of Darkness.” From emails, we can see that she viewed the whole thing as a political liability. With Kitzhaber’s blessing, she did everything in her power to get Oregonians out of a state exchange and into the now constitutionally dubious federal one.
Along the way, the two launched a lawsuit against a computer contractor, Oracle, that has resulted in a counter-suit and much future expensive litigation for Oregonians. We’ll look into that in our next dispatch.
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