By REP. DENNIS RICHARDSON
Oregon has become a national joke, as the much-ballyhooed Cover Oregon health care website rollout has ground to a halt. This grand fiasco was brought to you by the governor’s staff, with his explicit approval.
It could have been avoided. For months, I and other legislators repeatedly urged state officials to listen to the warnings of two separate outside evaluators.
Over a year before the collapse, I wrote to fellow legislators and the governor in September 2012, based on meetings I was having with both the quality assurance firm hired by the Legislature to monitor the project and with the legislative fiscal office in my role as the co-chair of Ways and Means. I said, “We cannot afford another failed state IT project. Too many times in the past, elected leaders merely went along with well-intending bureaucrats who, after millions of taxpayer dollars had been squandered, could only make apologies, cast blame or retire and begin collecting their generous PERS annuity.”
I even called the governor the third week of September and urged him to intervene with his officials. He promised me he would “take a look” at the project. I told him that as CEO of this state the result “would rest on his shoulders.”
During legislative hearings the following December, then-Rep. Patrick Sheehan sounded the alarm in the Joint Legislative Audits and Information Management and Technology Committee meeting.
The state had obtained $48 million to build the Cover Oregon software from scratch. Rep. Sheehan had been in contact with representatives from a company that had already developed such software, which could have been licensed for $6 million and customized for another $6 million. He had even received live demonstrations of the software. The governor’s officials ignored these warnings and went ahead with their plans to use Oracle, the same company that is now being blamed for the program’s almost $200 million failure.
These problems could very well be the tip of the iceberg. The head of the Oregon Health Authority has revealed that the exchange would have to enroll 145,000 people in private plans and lower its overhead 20 percent in order to be self-sustaining by the end of the year, when federal grant funds expire. OHA is also expected to have a nearly $1 billion budget shortfall in the 2017-19 biennium.
Since the governor has failed to take decisive action to stop the wasteful spending on Cover Oregon, I have introduced legislation, in response to the current crisis, to end Cover Oregon and hand over the exchange to the federal government. While their system isn’t perfect and has also had problems, it is much closer to operational than ours is.
The governor, on the other hand, wants to spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars producing an investigation that will duplicate findings that are already public, but empowers the governor to embargo them, so neither the Legislature nor the public can see them. This is not a study. It’s an attempt to create paralysis by analysis.
The governor is uninvolved. His tendency to walk away from his own projects has led to numerous expensive failures. The Columbia River Crossing project has burned through over $180 million on studies, some dubious, and has produced only an audit so bad that the Washington State Legislature ran away from the project.
Now the governor wants to give Washington state a multibillion dollar gift of Oregon taxpayers’ money by building it alone.
Gov. Kitzhaber took office the third time in 2010. The Department of Human Services’ new $80 million state computer system, started in 2009, has now consumed $80 million and is still not fully operational.
The Department of Administrative Services reported last year that the state has 16 major IT projects underway. Half of them indicate one or more high-risk elements related to its schedule, budget or overall project risk.
Gov. Kitzhaber has a solid track record of starting massively expensive new projects and then walking away from them just when they need supervision the most. He has wasted almost a half billion dollars of your tax money in the last four years. That is $500 for every family of four in the state of Oregon.
The governor’s record is not just one of a failed project. It is one of a failure to lead, to supervise and to care what happens to money the rest of us work so hard for every day. The governor recently said about Oregon, “This isn’t New Jersey.” He’s right. But it isn’t Russia, either.
We do not need a governor for life who is uninterested in actually governing. Maybe three terms are enough for Oregon. We really cannot afford excuses for wasting another $1 billion during a fourth term. In baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out. That makes a lot sense when considering this governor’s bid for a fourth term.
Rep. Dennis Richardson has served in the Oregon Legislature since first being elected in 2002. He is a declared candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2016.