This Is Your Brain on Cover Oregon: Any Questions? - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
This Is Your Brain on Cover Oregon: Any Questions?

“Everyone knows Custer died at Little Big Horn. What this book presupposes is: maybe he didn’t.”

It is a tale told by a madman: Eli Cash in the Wes Anderson movie The Royal Tenenbaums. But the leap that it describes — from what we think we know to a reality that is a total, brain bending contradiction — is a little more understandable for folks who spend too long contemplating the bonkers political situation in the State of Oregon these days. The true story just might be stranger than anything we could have made into fiction.

When, the federal government’s website for Obamacare, launched on October 1, 2013, it was a laughingstock. Saturday Night Live joked that only six people could be on the site at one time. That turned out to be the exact same number of people who managed to sign up the first day. Jon Stewart challenged DHHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius to a contest: “I’m going to try and download every movie ever made, and you’re going to try to sign up for Obamacare, and we’ll see which happens first.”

On the same day, another Obamacare website — this one called Cover Oregon, for the agency set up to oversee it — was supposed to launch. There are a number of similarities between the two initiatives, beyond the fact that they were both Obamacare websites.

Both were sprawling, ill-planned projects with the government acting as its own project manager and systems integrator and putting people with very little IT experience in charge, for instance. But President Obama and company bit the bullet. They braved the slings and arrows of public opinion, spent well over $1 billion, and eventually got the website functioning. If you want to sign up for Obamacare, you can go and do that there, at least until the Supreme Court weighs in on the constitutionality of it.

Cover Oregon was a different story. Under the leadership of now-disgraced former governor John Kitzhaber, it never saw the light of screen. After spending $300 million in federal funds, Oregon bureaucrats couldn’t get the website to work and it never launched.

Oregonians were eventually told to sign up via the federal website-exchange instead, which could make 100,000 or so of them vulnerable to much higher premiums if the case of King v. Burwell goes the wrong way this summer. If Obamacare subsidies can flow only through state exchanges, then a large number of Oregonians will be so out of luck. As we have seen, exchanges are hard to set up and you can’t just flick a switch and make that happen.

Or can you? Custer died at Little Big Horn but… maybe he didn’t? What if the State of Oregon actually had a working exchange website all ready to go but chose to walk away from it instead? What if the Kitzhaber administration looked at the falling poll numbers, panicked into political fight-or-flight mode, and decided to do whatever it took to ditch Cover Oregon ASAP?

That is the startling argument of IT firm Oracle. Company spokesperson Deborah Hellinger told The American Spectator Tuesday, “We were hired to assist Oregon and develop technical solutions as we have done in countless other states and for the federal government. The system registered hundreds of thousands of Oregonians and was fully functional by February, 2014. Unfortunately, along the way it became clear that the process in Oregon was being managed by unaccountable campaign consultants whose primary concern was the political implications for the former-governor and in shifting blame away from state management.”

Oracle is not an unbiased party in all of this. It has its name on between three and five lawsuits related to Cover Oregon, depending on how you count them — as both plaintiff and defendant. But it might also be right. For instance, Cover Oregon did manage to sign several hundred thousand people up for Obamacare and Medicaid before making the decision to dump everyone into the federal exchange. How did it do that? Through walk-in and call-in centers is the usual explanation in press accounts. That leaves out one pretty important detail: these centers were registering people using the backend of that never-launched website.

Further, we know from February 2014 emails from Cover Oregon boss Bruce Goldberg to Kitzhaber — emails that Kitzhaber tried to get the state to purge, by the way — that his agency thought the system could “function with a 90+ percent of accuracy for 90-95 percent of the population”; that the beta reviews were “more positive than negative”; and that many problems “can be overcome with training.” On the last point, he explained, “You need to use your mouse to click the ‘next’ button.… using your return key sends you back a page.”

These quibbles sound like typical beta testing concerns, not the stuff of lawsuits and dramatically failed exchanges. And yet, here we are.

Oracle contends that the site was ready to launch in February of 2014. The head of Cover Oregon basically agreed with that assessment when he was being candid with the governor. Instead, the state chose in April to fold the project and funnel all Oregonians into the federal exchange. Why?

If you think Oracle is basically right, then there is no sane answer to that question. Most everyone who isn’t lawyered up at this point agrees that the shutdown of the state exchange was “politically orchestrated,” but it was the kind of political orchestration we could wrap our brains around. The story was that they had a loser on their hands and wanted to get rid of it so that it didn’t affect the governor’s reelection chances. We might not do the same thing in their shoes but we could understand the temptation.

But what if that story is wrong? What if the state actually had what could have been a functioning website and didn’t launch it? What if a small number of consultants, empowered by the governor who wanted to avoid the Jon Stewart treatment and be reelected at all costs, decided to walk away from that anyway? What if they did this after spending $300 million, and thus ringing up another $45-50 million (in mostly federal dollars) in transition costs?

All of this is either proven or is frustratingly plausible. If true, it would actually be good news for some Oregonians in the event that the Supreme Court throws out The state could settle with Oracle and, presumably, get a functioning exchange up and running quick. Until that decision, the story will be further scrutinized as Oregon and Oracle duke it out in court and as federal prosecutors weigh charges against Kitzhaber and cronies.

We won’t be shocked if someone along the way raises temporary insanity as a defense — or mescaline, you never know.

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