DURHAM, Ore. (AP) - The leader of Oregon's troubled health insurance exchange says thousands of Oregonians who sent in their applications by the deadline may have to go elsewhere for temporary coverage - despite the state's promises.
Gov. John Kitzhaber has repeatedly said that Cover Oregon's technical issues won't prevent anyone from being enrolled starting Jan. 1. The exchange's online portal has still not enrolled a single person and the state relies exclusively on paper applications and a lengthy manual process to sign people up.
Dr. Bruce Goldberg, acting head of Cover Oregon, said Tuesday that only 28,000 of the 65,000 people who sent in completed paper applications by a Dec. 4 deadline have had their applications processed.
Those 28,000 have already received their enrollment packets or their packets have been mailed. Once they get the packets, they must pick an insurance plan and send their choice back to the state by Dec. 15 to enroll.
The applications of about 37,000 Oregonians have not yet been processed. About half of those people will likely be eligible for Medicaid and will be automatically enrolled, Goldberg said. He said some of the other half, who would qualify for private insurance through the exchange, may be without coverage for a month - even though they sent their applications in by the deadline.
Those who don't receive an enrollment packet this week should make other plans for January coverage, Goldberg said. That includes either buying health insurance directly from a carrier for those not currently insured or asking their current carriers to extend their plans for another month.
Goldberg also said the exchange's website would not be operational until "sometime after January," though he declined to give an exact date. Officials previously said the online portal would work for the general public on Dec. 16.
"I want to acknowledge it's been really confusing and disappointing to people," Goldberg said. "We're not where we wanted to be. People are upset, angry and I'm sorry about that. Our job now is to get that fixed."
Kitzhaber said processing paper applications turned out to be more complicated than initially anticipated, in part because so many forms were incomplete. Many required signatures, which couldn't be obtained with a phone call, he told The Associated Press.
"I'm certainly willing to be held accountable for the fact that everybody who wanted coverage by Jan. 1 is not going to get it," Kitzhaber said.
Goldberg said Cover Oregon was racing to process as many applications as possible to give people a chance to enroll by Jan. 1, but the application processing has been hobbled by lack of time, a large volume of applications, and the fact that about half the applications received were incomplete. Just 730 people have enrolled in private insurance via Cover Oregon as of this week. About 9,200 have enrolled in Medicaid.
To speed up processing, Cover Oregon added night shifts seven days a week, contracted with a call center to email and call applicants who were found eligible to purchase a commercial plan, and added additional phone and fax lines.
Cover Oregon's troubles have left insurance agents who were trained by Cover Oregon to enroll Oregonians fuming.
"My biggest frustration is the short time we have been allowed to make these massive changes with all of our clients," said agent Patrick O'Keefe of Bend's Cascade Insurance Center. "There is just not enough time and some people are going to get left behind." Open enrollment for Cover Oregon ends at the end of March for people who want to avoid a penalty from the federal government.
People who send in paper applications after Dec. 4 won't have insurance until February or later.