Kitzhaber downplays Oregon health exchange issues

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PORTLAND — Gov. John Kitzhaber on Friday downplayed the problems that have plagued Oregon’s health insurance exchange and urged people who need insurance by Jan. 1 to fill out a paper application instead of waiting for online enrollment to work.

The state should be judged on whether people who want insurance are able to sign up, not whether the website works, the governor said.

Nobody has been able to enroll in health insurance through Cover Oregon, the state’s health insurance exchange, because software glitches have prevented the website from accurately determining whether people qualify for federal subsidies or publicly funded health care through Medicaid. There is no timetable for when the website will be fully operational.

“Our commitment is to ensure that everyone who wants to be enrolled in a qualified plan is enrolled on a qualified plan by Jan. 1,” Kitzhaber told reporters in a news conference. “All the pieces are in place to make that happen, we’re just deploying them a little bit differently now than if the website had been up and working a few weeks ago.”

Still, approval of the exchange was a signature accomplishment for Kitzhaber in the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions. It was billed as a one-stop-shop for people seeking insurance, a place where they could easily compare plans, find out whether they qualify for subsidies and sign up.

State officials are now urging people to fill out a 19-page form, either on paper on in a fillable PDF online. Staff members will review applications by hand, determine whether applicants are eligible for state-funded health care or tax credits to offset the cost of private insurance, and then will send the determination in the mail.

Applicants will then be able to choose the plan they want and notify Cover Oregon, which will pass along the information to the selected insurance company.

The paper-based process could take weeks in total, far longer than the online system that was supposed to allow people to sign up in as little as an hour. Medicaid rules give the state up to 45 days to determine eligibility, though a Cover Oregon spokesman, Michael Cox, said the state aims to work much more quickly.

Officials have previously said people should apply by Dec. 15 to ensure they’re enrolled by Jan. 1, but officials may have a very difficult time processing applications started that late if the online system still doesn’t work.

Cover Oregon has hired 100 temporary employees to help with the extra work, and staff from other state agencies also will be temporarily assigned to help Cover Oregon process applications for insurance.

The governor touted success in enrolling the people who will become eligible for the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s Medicaid program. He said 70,000 people receiving food stamps through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program have used a fast-track process to sign up for the Oregon Health Plan.