22 Dec

Cover Oregon seeks a high-tech helping hand in … Kentucky

A computer system is an array of tiny distances, of countless operations happening in a space the size of a nail clipping, a miracle of microtechnology.
And to make Oregon’s health care computer system work, we only had to travel 2,500 miles.

Think of it as macrotechnology.

This month, the Oregon state government announced that 14 months after our computer insurance sign-up system was supposed to be working, we’d finally found a way to make it work:

We’re going to get usable software from Kentucky.

You know, the legendary home of Silicon Holler.

After more than a year of system fails, of more crashes than a bumper car ride, after endless assurances that we were just one tweak away from an on-line system that would make Amazon curdle in envy, Oregon ran up the white flag of permanent sign-off, seeking a solution from a state better known for bourbon than tech support.

A computer or software system that has become totally useless is described as “fried.”

This month, it became clear that the Oregon health care computer system is Kentucky fried.

Because the development of both state systems was essentially paid for by the feds, using the Bluegrass system won’t cost Oregon much – although we may be assigning them the rights to the catchy Cover Oregon TV commercials that recruited enrollees before we found there was nothing to recruit them to.

With just a little Computer Generated Imagery – and Kentucky seems to be good at computers – someone could change the theme song from “Live Long in Oregon” to “Get Lucky in Kentucky.”

Except it seems Kentucky is already doing fine.

The Cover Oregon system, just to bring up a warm memory, was going to be a national model, seamlessly giving applicants a wide range of options and connections to multiple other programs. Even while various people working for the state kept pointing out that the software was beyond soft, Cover Oregon kept issuing confident statements, until the day before it was supposed to launch, when Cover Oregon announced that on second thought, forget it.

Months and months later, Oregon was the only state unable to enroll applicants entirely on line. Instead, the state hired hundreds of temporary workers to use the technologically sophisticated enrollment system of pen and paper.

At least we weren’t chiseling applicants’ medical information onto stone tablets.

Kentucky, by contrast, started with a simple, basic system, and soon enrolled hundreds of thousands of people in a state where the computer system, if I understand this right, is coal-fired. The system actually became quite popular, to the point where Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, running for re-election on a pledge to completely repeal Obamacare, felt the need to assure his constituents that after Obamacare was gone, they could still keep the website.

Of course, that would have left Kentucky with a website but no connecting health insurance program – as opposed to Oregon, which had an insurance program but no website.

Oregon wasn’t, we all know, the only state that had system problems. Maryland, for example, was also caught in a permanent alt-control-delete cycle, and ended up getting software that had worked in Connecticut.

Kevin Counihan, chief executive of Access Health CT, told The Washington Post that the state’s strategy was simple: “We wanted to build a Ford Focus — something that will get you to the grocery store and back, and not much more. We figured that later we could add the power windows and automatic locks. This is not a Cadillac.”

Oregon, on the other hand, built a Lamborghini, except without tires.

Maryland, recognizing its situation, began turning toward Connecticut in March. The Oregon trail only ended up in Kentucky this month.

Explains Mitch Greenlick, chairman of the Oregon House health committee, “You know it’s very hard to give up when you’ve got a couple of hundred million dollars invested.”

Greenlick also wants us to remember that, one way or another, we’ve gone from 17 percent uninsured in 2002 to about 5 percent uninsured now.

In fact, Oregon didn’t finally turn to Kentucky until the state decided it would rather sue Oracle, builder of the site, than try to work with it any more. Oracle’s defense is that Oregon didn’t hire a systems integrator, so it was our fault because we didn’t watch them.

As Daniel Boone concluded a while ago, we’re better off with Kentucky.

Still, as we continue on our lengthy process to make the system work, maybe Kentucky could also send along some bourbon.

And for future dealings with Oracle, a Louisville Slugger.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 12/21/14.

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