Cover Oregon Bill Passes Health Committee with Few Alterations

The committee’s Republican members failed to make major amendments to House Bill 4154 which included shutting down the insurance exchange and expediting an audit from the Secretary of State. Meanwhile, money from a lapsed premium tax should be able to cover the three-month extension of the high-risk pool.
The Lund Report

The House Health Committee unanimously passed a bill Wednesday that seeks to mitigate the problems consumers have faced in obtaining health insurance because of the disastrous rollout of the state insurance exchange, Cover Oregon.

The amended version of House Bill 4154 was very similar to the one proposed last week by Rep. Shemia Fagan, D-Clackamas, with only a handful of technical changes that allow her original intentions to be better carried out. The bill will likely impact the budgets of Cover Oregon, the Oregon Health Authority and the Department of Consumer & Business Services, and therefore must now go before the Joint Committee on Ways & Means.

HB 4154 extends the open enrollment for Cover Oregon through April, funds a temporary high-risk pool created by 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.

One by one, the majority Democrats rejected Republican amendments to the legislation on a party-line 5-4 vote.

The Republican proposals would have required legislators to get their government-sponsored health plan on Cover Oregon; asked Secretary of State Kate Brown to expedite an audit of Cover Oregon; required acting director Bruce Goldberg to provide the Legislature with clearer information about the solvency of Cover Oregon; and lastly, dismantled the exchange and sought a federal waiver to allow Oregonians to get subsidies on the open market.

HB 4154 does ask for a waiver to help Oregonians who bought outside the exchange tthis year, but the Republican amendment, pushed by Rep. Jason Conger of Bend, would have asked for this permission in perpetuity.

“These amendments were serious,” said Conger, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Jeff Merkley. “I think we would’ve made some difference. … I think we need to do more.”

The Republicans complained that none of their suggestions were incorporated into HB 4154, but Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, told The Lund Report that the bill was altered after feedback from Rep. Jim Thompson, R-Dallas. Thompson had an amendment to HB 4154 that would have removed language that gives the governor to wipe clean the Cover Oregon board. As a compromise, Greenlick said the governor will lose this ability at the end of the biennium in July 2015.

He also said that the bill will likely evolve before reaching the House floor: “I’m certain it will not come out of Ways & Means in the form it’s in.”

Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, told The Lund Report before the vote that an audit from Brown’s office would be more independent than the one Kitzhaber has ordered from First Data because the Secretary of State is independently elected.

“She’s accountable to the people,” Parrish said. “She’s not answerable to John Kitzhaber.”

Without the amendment in HB 4154, Brown cannot order her own audit until October 2014.

Parrish was alarmed that language in the First Data contract allowed for certain information to be redacted from public disclosure. “[Kitzhaber] can pick and choose what’s redacted and what’s not,” she said.

However, Matt Shelby, the spokesman for the Department of Administrative Services, told The Lund Report that any report from Brown could withhold information if it cited an exemption from public records law, which is the same information that might be blacked out from the First Data report. “That ability exists all the time,” Shelby said.

Shelby said he doesn’t know exactly what might be redacted from the final public report, but information technology contractor Oracle could ask that certain proprietary software information be kept out.

High-Risk Pool

Among other things, HB 4154 authorizes the funding to pay for Kitzhaber’s extension of the high-risk Oregon Medical Insurance Pool until the state can be assured that this population had received health insurance for 2014. Before the Affordable Care Act took effect, this group could not purchase regular insurance because of pre-existing conditions.

On Monday, Oregon Health Authority lobbyist Courtney Westling said the cost of extending the high-risk pool by three months would cost $5 million and would likely be covered by the $7 million left in an account raised from an insurance premium tax that expired at the end of last year. If the pool exhausts that fund, Senate Bill 1582 allows the state to dip into the money from the reinsurance tax.

She said of the 10,300 people in the former high-risk pool, only 1,400 still remain, and the state was actively trying to get them signed up through Cover Oregon. “This will give them a soft place to land,” Westling said.

The extension was well-received in the Senate Health Committee, but Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, expressed a note of caution: “I’m just hoping three months is enough time. I have heard a lot of reassurances from people in this building that aren’t true.”

Christopher David Gray can be reached at chris@thelundreport.org
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