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Monday, December 5, 2016

by Charles Ornstein, ProPublica.

Much has been written (and will continue to be written) about the spectacular failure of health insurance exchanges in Minnesota, Massachusetts, Oregon and Maryland — all blue states that support the Affordable Care Act.

All were woefully unprepared for their Oct. 1 launch, and unlike HealthCare.gov, the federal marketplace, they are still having trouble getting back on their feet. As a result, enrollment in those four states has lagged behind other states, including many that actively oppose the health law.

The New York Times recently reported on how problems in these states could give Republican candidates an opening. “Last month, the Republican National Committee filed public-records requests in Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Oregon seeking information about compensation and vacation time for the exchange directors, four of whom have resigned. All five states have Democratic governors whose terms end this year. Three of them 2014 Gov. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, Gov. Mark Dayton of Minnesota and Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon 2014 are seeking re-election,” The Times reported.

One common element emerging in the coverage of these exchanges is that at least some state employees knew they were heading for disaster but didn’t take action early enough to remedy it. All the states have blamed some, if not all, of their problems on outside tech contractors. Here’s a sampling of what has been reported in each state.

Oregon

The Oregonian newspaper has done a great job chronicling the unfolding disaster with Cover Oregon. The state is the only one in which no one has been able to enroll using the website. In an article last month, the newspaper reported that a technology analyst at Oregon’s Department of Administrative Services warned last May that managers at the exchange were being “intellectually dishonest” in claiming it would be ready Oct. 1.

As the Oregonian set forth in its findings:

  • The project’s significant flaws were well documented dating back to November 2011. Multiple independent analysts repeatedly raised questions about poor management along with strong doubts that it could be operational by the Oct. 1, 2013 deadline.
  • Cover Oregon leaders wavered between despair and an almost evangelical enthusiasm that they could complete the site. In the end they charged ahead, piloting an unfinished, largely untested exchange project right up to the Oct. 1 go-live date with no backup plan ready to go.
  • Senior officials in Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office and elsewhere read at least some of these warnings but took no significant steps to intervene, apparently after being convinced by others the project was on track.
  • A key official in the massive IT project took steps to silence the critics. The Oregon Health Authority last January withheld payment from the company hired to monitor the project, claiming its persistent criticism was inaccurate and inflammatory.

The director of Cover Oregon left on medical leave in December. The Oregonian also has a good piece comparing Oregon’s failures with the successes of Kentucky, whose exchange has been lauded.

Minnesota

Blame is being spread around in Minnesota, where the MNsure exchange is sputtering and its call center is unable to keep up with demand. As news site MinnPost reported last month: “The vendors are blaming the state. Gov. Mark Dayton and state officials are blaming the private companies who built the faulty technology, and MNsure leaders are quick to point out that they weren’t around when controversial decisions were made. Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, are saying that the governor needs to take responsibility for the project.”

MinnPost reported that despite their efforts to blame vendors, state officials were responsible for key decisions:

Newly released contract documents suggest the state and MNsure leaders had a more direct role in the health exchange’s many missteps than they have publicly acknowledged.

In recent weeks, Gov. Mark Dayton and MNsure officials have increased their criticism of vendors, blaming the private technology companies for some of the underlying problems and glitches with the health exchange’s operation.

However, in early May, the state of Minnesota in effect took over responsibility from its lead contractor, Maximus Inc., for constructing MNsure’s technical infrastructure, according to contract amendments released to MinnPost by MNsure.

The new documents show that the exchange staff quietly made a significant change to its key contract for building MNsure 2014 just months after making major revisions to the timeframe and size of the project.

Dayton later said he was unsure if senior MNsure staff were keeping him apprised of the serious issues with the exchange as soon as they came up.

The Star Tribune has reported on lengthy delays at the exchange’s call center and how officials in charge of the project received bonuses before its disastrous launch.

As in Oregon, the head of Minnesota’s exchange also resigned.

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