Cover Oregon Ejects Reporters from Closed-Door Meeting with Legislators

Gov. Kitzhaber announced Tuesday that open enrollment will be extended through April but the exchange is reeling from his announcement last week that top officials would lose their jobs. Cover Oregon staff blocked reporters from a legislative meeting, in possible violation of the Public Meetings Law.

Cover Oregon kicked The Lund Report out of a meeting with top legislators at its Durham headquarters Tuesday, and barred two Statesman-Journal reporters at the door from entering the office.

The reporter from The Lund Report was escorted out of the office by Cover Oregon marketing director Amy Fauver and spokeswoman Ariane Holm, and was told it was a private meeting.

The impending exits of acting director Dr. Bruce Goldberg, chief technology officer Aaron Karjala and chief operating officer Beatriz delaRosa have clearly rattled the Cover Oregon staff. Rep. Jim Thompson, R-Dallas had invited The Lund Report to sit in on the legislative oversight committee meeting.

“The last thing any of us need to do is to be having secret meetings on this subject. That’s really what the public wants to hear,” Thompson said sarcastically. “I think they’re just discombobulating.”

Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, who was also in attendance, did not respond to a call seeking comment about the meeting.

When asked why the reporter had been asked to leave, Holm responded, in an email, that previous meetings had not been public since most had been done over the telephone. But she didn’t cite the law that allows Cover Oregon staff to meet in secret with the oversight committee, and Cover Oregon could now be in violation of Oregon’s public meetings law.

An Oregon Department of Justice web page says only that public agencies are allowed to conduct staff meetings behind closed doors.

Thompson told The Lund Report that he had asked legislative counsel to determine whether such meetings are public since they are spelled out in the law that created Cover Oregon. Thompson believes they are indeed public and under the purview of the Legislature, but Cover Oregon contends the legislative oversight committee meetings are private staff meetings to which legislators are invited.

The legislative attorney most versed on open government laws is on vacation this week, as is his counterpart at the Department of Justice.

In addition to Thompson and Greenlick, Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, was at the meeting as well as staff members from the office of House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland. Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, and Sen. Brian Boquist, R-McMinnville, had been invited but did not attend and may have participated by telephone.

Thompson said the ejection of mild-mannered reporters was particularly absurd because the meeting was incredibly dull, with little new insight disclosed to the legislators about Cover Oregon’s plans.

April Extension Granted

The big news came the next day when Gov. John Kitzhaber announced that the Secretary of the U.S. Health & Human Services Department, Kathleen Sebelius, had granted the state's request for an extension of the open enrollment period through April.

“I worked with Secretary Sebelius to give Oregonians more opportunity to secure healthcare coverage and get the financial help they deserve," according to a statement released by Kitzhaber on  Wednesday morning.

With the end of open enrollment looming next Monday, March 31, it had been in doubt whether consumers would even have the chance to get covered if they had not signed up with an insurer by then. Now people have until April 30 to go submit their initial eligibility application to CoverOregon.com. 

People can submit their application by PDF, mail or fax, but may have the best chance working with an insurance agent. They can also buy an insurance plan on the open market for another month, but all subsidies must come through Cover Oregon -- either at the time of application, or retroactively.

Sebelius also gave Oregon some relief in the small business market. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees that purchase qualified health and dental plans on the open market can receive a tax rebate if they provide insurance that pays for at least half the cost of the individual premiums of their employees.

With the April extension in hand, Cover Oregon plans to go out with a bang in its advertising campaign as well:

"Cover Oregon today also began an outreach campaign that includes television, print and digital ads targeted for people who have not yet applied – and also direct mail and other outreach to people who have applied but not yet enrolled," said Fauver in an email. "The goal is to target people who are deadline driven, who may have been waiting for the full website, and younger Oregonians."

Beyond Oracle

At Tuesday's meeting, the Cover Oregon staff discussed their strategies with lawmakers for getting the small business portal running as well as how best to operate the entire exchange for enrollment this fall for calendar year 2015. The bad blood between the exchange and Oracle has made it difficult to complete the contract.

A handout from the meeting obtained by The Lund Report lays out three possible solutions, all of which would have Cover Oregon ceasing work with Oracle.

The exchange could move forward with its existing technology, but hire a new vendor to finish the work; partner with the federal government to use its infrastructure; or switch to another state’s technology, specifically Rhode Island’s, according to Thompson’s office.

With just 1 million people, little Rhode Island has outshined nearly every state with its exchange, enrolling 19,000 people through February into private health insurance plans -- almost twice what was expected. Oregon, at four times the size of Rhode Island, had enrolled almost 50,000 as of March 19, far short of its lofty goal of 190,000 by the end of February.

Thompson said he didn’t get any answers as to how the state would pay for a new vendor, but he promised Cover Oregon that no new money from the Legislature would be available before the fall election. “I left the meeting shaking my head,” he said.

Goldberg remains acting director of Cover Oregon until a permanent replacement can be hired as early as next month.

Editor's Note: The Lund Report had learned about the meeting from Rep. Thompson and Rep. Greenlick, but Greenlick did not specifically invite the reporter to the meeting, as an earlier article stated. We regret the error.

Christopher David Gray can be reached at [email protected].

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