Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, an emergency-room doctor who for years championed greater access to health care, finds his re-election campaign in trouble after his administration blew the state’s adoption of Obamacare.
Technical flaws in the Cover Oregon website, the portal to a $305 million state-run insurance exchange, caused thousands of consumers to file paper applications until the state gave up last month and directed enrollees to a federal program.
While President Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is gaining momentum nationwide with about 8 million people signing on, Kitzhaber faces the blame for mishandling his state’s rollout. A poll of registered voters found 49 percent want to replace the 67-year-old Democrat. Six Republicans are vying in today’s primary election for the nomination to face him in November.
“He should be held accountable for the failure -- and where did the money go?” said Peggy Long, 56, a retired telecommunications executive from Mitchell, Oregon, who said the website repeatedly threw her off and she eventually had to go through a private broker. “Millions of dollars of taxpayer money went to nothing. It’s a dead end.”
While Democrats have held the governor’s office since 1987, Kitzhaber “shows vulnerability,” according to DHM Research, a Portland, Oregon-based research firm. In a poll it conducted for Oregon Public Broadcasting released May 7, 35 percent of registered voters said Kitzhaber should return to office for a fourth term.
The telephone survey of 400 Oregonians had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points, according to DHM.
Kitzhaber said that while he takes responsibility for the health program’s missteps, it’s not the only issue in the campaign. He said his record includes “over 100,000 new jobs, having one of the fastest growing economies in the state, transforming our system of public education.”
“You go around the state, and it turns out people are interested in a whole host of other things besides our website,” the governor said in an interview. “They’re interested in whether their kids are going to be able to afford a college education, they’re concerned about their job stability, whether they can afford health care.”
As of May 15, 81,358 people had enrolled in private medical insurance through Cover Oregon, according to the program’s website. Another 198,976 signed up for the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s program for low-income residents.
The website’s plight has spurred blame-trading between the state government and the project’s main contractor, Redwood City, California-based Oracle Corp., the biggest maker of database software.
Deborah Hellinger, a spokeswoman for Oracle, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Cover Oregon.
“It will certainly be a big problem for Kitzhaber,” said Bill Lunch, professor emeritus of political science at Oregon State University in Corvallis. “He’s been involved in health care and the expansion of public health care almost all of his political career. So the fact that Cover Oregon did not work as advertised at all is going to hurt him.”
Kitzhaber practiced medicine in Roseburg from 1974 to 1988. In 2006, he founded the Archimedes Movement, now called We Can Do Better, a group dedicated to overhauling U.S. health care, and was president of the Estes Park Institute, an Englewood, Colorado-based group that organizes conferences for hospital executives, from 2003 until 2010.
He previously served as Oregon’s governor from 1995 to 2003, winning election to a third term in 2010.
Obama’s health care plan aims to expand insurance coverage to most of the 48 million U.S. residents without it in part by selling them private policies through new government-run marketplaces called exchanges.
The state exchanges allow residents to use a website or telephone service to input information, including their income, and select from a menu of private health plans. Those who didn’t enroll by a March 31 deadline may face a tax penalty.
There was little collaboration between the states, and the performance of their exchanges has varied widely. California, Washington and Kentucky are among states running their own exchanges that exceeded enrollment expectations, according to Avalere Health LLC, a Washington consulting firm. Oregon, Massachusetts and Maryland never got their websites working.
“Cover Oregon is a poster-child example of fraud, waste and abuse of state and federal resources,” said state Representative Dennis Richardson, 64, a Republican from Central Point, who’s competing with five others for his party’s nomination to face Kitzhaber in November.
Kitzhaber’s campaign has collected $878,673 in contributions, while Richardson’s campaign has drawn donations of $201,516, according to the Oregon Secretary of State’s website.
“He’s had a number of successes and he’s going to be emphasizing those,” Lunch, the Oregon State professor, said of Kitzhaber. “And he’ll point out that a very significant number of Oregonians have been enrolled in health care. So even though the website failed, the expansion of the health-care system can’t be described as a complete failure.”