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Cover Oregon Hand Sorts 7,300 Paper Applications So Far

OPB | Oct. 31, 2013 6:45 p.m. | Updated: Jan. 3, 2014 2:18 p.m. | Portland

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As the federal government consumes humble pie over failures in the health insurance exchanges, Oregon’s exchange is also struggling.

The Cover Oregon website has yet to enroll anybody.

The Cover Oregon website has yet to enroll anybody.

Rebecca Roberts Galloway / OPB

Cover Oregon has yet to enroll one single person and it’s been reduced to combing through paper applications to figure out eligibility.

When Cover Oregon opened October 1, executive director  Rocky King was excited.  He’d been preparing for years,

“Day one, we are accepting applications,” he said. “And staff at the Oregon Health Authority and Cover Oregon are ready to process those applications.”

Cover Oregon Executive Director Rocky King talks about Oregon's new insurance marketplace.

Cover Oregon Executive Director Rocky King talks about Oregon's new insurance marketplace.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

Back then, King conceded there were still glitches with the site, but he said that by mid-to-late October, they’d be worked out.

Now it’s November and it’s clear a quick fix is not in the cards.

So Cover Oregon has turned to old-fashioned paper applications. People can either download one off the website, or go in person to have somebody walk them through the process.

OPB made a request to visit a call center to see that process, but was turned down for “security reasons.”

Instead, spokeswoman Amy Fauver explains how it’ll work. “We have on our website right now, a place where people who just want to wait, who just want do to it electronically, can give us their e-mail address and we will e-mail them when the system is fully functional,” she said.

“We also hear from a lot of people who are really chomping at the bit to get started. And they want to send in their paper application as soon as they can.  And either way is fine with us.”

But some consumers are frustrated.

Amanda Thomas lives in Oregon but works for an Australian company — putting up science exhibitions. As an independent contractor, she has to buy her own health insurance. “(I) did not have a lot of good luck on the site, I must admit,” she said.

Not all the links worked and when she tried to sign up, she was guided to a list of insurance brokers.

“What I ended up doing was calling one of the brokers,” she said. “Literally just picked one off the screen at random, called him and he explained the whole situation in much more detail and much more understandably. And his advice was wait and sign up later.”

The paper application is 20 pages long and asks for everything from the names and the number of people in your household, to pension contributions and alimony payments.

Cover Oregon spokeswoman, Amy Fauver, says applicants who want to take the paper route, need to fill out the form and send it back.

“And then we do an eligibility determination in-house, on their behalf,” she said.

That means Cover Oregon staff comb through documents to find out whether someone is eligible for a tax break, or for the Oregon Health Plan.

The sporadic functionality of the federal government’s website can make it hard to check on that eligibility. But Cover Oregon’s software is also  troublesome.

“When we run a test case, a test household to determine eligibility, most of the time it works just fine. But there are times when it doesn’t,” she said. “It tends to happen more often with more complex households.”

So Fauver says when the computer system is working, applicants are going to get one of three responses:  They’re eligible, not eligible, or pending — meaning further communication with Cover Oregon staff is necessary.

“We need to get to a place that we are assured that when the system gives a determination, that it’s correct,” she said.

Cover Oregon hopes to avoid what happened in Washington State. Its exchange recently informed 8,000 applicants that they did not in fact qualify for as large a tax credit as they’d been told.

But back at Cover Oregon, let’s say everything is fine and an applicant is eligible for a tax credit, “We send them a packet that includes: the amount of the tax credit; the different plans that are available to them; and the costs of those plans; and a form that they can fill out to say, I want plan A,” she said. “Then they sign that form and send it back to us.”

Cover Oregon is not saying when the website might be fully functional.

So far, it has a stack of 7,300 paper applications, with more coming in each day.

It has 45 days to process each one, but officials say they hope to do the job more quickly.

Insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act doesn’t start until January 1 and applicants have until the end of March to sign up for a plan.

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