Interest Groups Sit Out Discussions on Cover Oregon Bills

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When the legislation to create Cover Oregon was being developed in 2011 and 2012, dozens of consumer advocate and interest groups lobbied and were involved in crafting the legislation.

This year, negotiations over proposed fixes to Cover Oregon are so politically charged that groups are mostly sitting out the discussions and leaving them to legislators.

The SEIU is the only group, so far, that has testified in favor of HB 4154, sponsored by Rep. Shemia Fagan, D-Clackamas, which passed out of the House Committee on Health Care on Feb. 12.

“We think it’s important that the people who are actually benefitting from this are given voice a little bit, so it’s not just politics,” Melissa Unger, state director of the SEIU, told State of Reform.

The consumer advocacy group OSPIRG, which was heavily involved in crafting the legislation that created Cover Oregon in 2011, has not taken a position on HB 4154 or on another exchange-related bill, HB 4122, which would require public contracts worth over $1 million to undergo a quality assurance review.

But Jesse Ellis O’Brien, OSPIRG’s health care advocate, said he takes a dim view of HB 4154  because its provisions don’t do anything to fix Cover Oregon’s main problem, which is getting the website up and running.  He also said the piece of HB 4154 that extends open enrollment to April 31 is ultimately up to the federal government.

“It’s not clear to me that the legislature could do anything that will directly influence that beyond expressing their sense that it would be beneficial for Oregon consumers,” Ellis O’Brien said. “It’s frustrating that, from our perspective, there’s not much we can do.”

But Democratic lawmakers are pressing ahead.

“The website needs to be fully operational, but our leadership is pushing for answers to who and what prevented it from working right in the first place,” said Jared Mason-Gere, spokesperson for House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland. “Our efforts are about more than just getting the website up.”

Other groups that are also not taking positions on those bills have asked to not be identified.  But in interviews with State of Reform, several of them said that the negotiating is going on between legislators and that input from advocates wouldn’t change the conversation.

Cover Oregon’s staff and board also seem to have little involvement in the discussions at this point.

Staff did not respond to requests for comment on the Cover Oregon-related bills under consideration in the legislature.

But HB 4154 came up during the Cover Oregon board’s monthly meeting that was held today.

“Haven’t we already done these things that they’re asking us to do?” asked board member Aelea Christofferson, referring to the bill’s provisions related to seeking federal approval to extend open enrollment and provide tax subsidies outside of the exchange.

Board Chair Liz Baxter pondered whether it would be appropriate for board members to communicate with legislators about the various bills.  She noted that no board members had been asked to testify in front of any legislative committees—a sign, perhaps, of the board’s limited influence on those discussions.