Cover Oregon insider: 'It was off the rails from the time it got started'

Cover Oregon insider: 'It was off the rails from the time it got started' »Play Video
Tom Jovick, former Cover Oregon special projects manager, says he has no regrets about sending an email to all staff before he left that blasted Gov. John Kitzhaber, Cover Oregon managers, the Oregon Health Authority and software developer Oracle.

SALEM, Ore. -- Oregon's health insurance exchange, which was supposed to be the darling of health care reform across the country, fell apart because of mismanagement and the state's "lousy" contract with its main technology developer, according to former Cover Oregon special projects manager Tom Jovick.

"I'm not ever sure (the project) was on the rails. It was off the rails from the time it got started," Jovick told KATU on Thursday at his home in Salem.

Jovick retired two weeks ago but before leaving he fired off an email to all staff blasting Gov. John Kitzhaber, Cover Oregon managers, Oregon Health Authority (OHA) leaders, and software developer Oracle for their disastrous handling of the state health insurance exchange. The Cover Oregon project became so dysfunctional the $248 million project was recently dumped in favor of federal exchange technology.

"It was a nightmare for a lot of people," Jovick told KATU. "I'm glad to be no longer working in that environment."

Jovick, who's worked at the agency since Nov. 1 2012, sent the email April 30 and agreed to a sit-down interview with the On Your Side Investigators.

He's one of few Cover Oregon insiders willing to speak publicly about the problem-plagued environment and the inner-workings of the state's health insurance exchange.

And he doesn't hold back.

"It was a mass of excrement as far as what we got from the Health Authority and Oracle," Jovick told KATU. "It was a cockamamie system that nobody in their right mind could make work."

Jovick said there was not a single smoking gun but rather several problems that led to the website failure, including the lack of a system's integrator. A system's integrator is like a general contractor that would help ensure the exchange would be operational in time for open enrollment. While a vast majority of state-run exchanges hired one, KATU learned, Oregon did not.

It was one of the only states that chose instead to oversee the project itself.

Jovick also blamed Oracle's unusual contract with the state, which allowed Oracle to bill on what was essentially a time and materials plan, rather than charging the state a set fee for work delivered. Jovick believes Oracle got away with doing shoddy work and he felt OHA didn't hold Oracle accountable.

The Oregon Health Authority was the agency responsible for shepherding the creation of Oregon's health insurance exchange project, later known as Cover Oregon. Carolyn Lawson, former chief information officer for the OHA and Department of Human Services (DHS), oversaw the bulk of the Cover Oregon website development. She resigned in December after fumbling the project.

Control of the exchange project shifted to Cover Oregon in May 2013 - earlier than expected - because Lawson had burned through all of her funding: a $48 million 'early innovator' grant the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare services had awarded Oregon back in 2011. When she passed off the project in May, Jovick said it was in complete shambles.

"When we got hold of it, we started to see there were problems but I don't think anyone realized the magnitude of the problems it created and the fact that it wouldn't work," Jovick said. "Invariably, some components would work but other things working before, would break."

In fact, he described working on the project like being on a sinking ship.

"You think it has a hole and you can fix it and actually the dang iceberg doomed it from the start," he said Thursday. "It's like you just pulled out of port and ran into a ginormous iceberg. You were sinking and the hole was way bigger."

The On Your Side Investigators found the quality assurance contract hired by the state, Maximus, knew the project was in jeopardy too and regularly red-flagged the Cover Oregon website problems. Behind the scenes, the project continued to head toward disaster. But Jovick insisted Oracle gave no warning that anything was awry.

"We also had at the same time, Oracle acting as if everything was A-okay," he said.

Jovick's email also lambasted former Cover Oregon executive director Bruce Goldberg, who now acts as an adviser since resigning as the agency's chief in April. Previously, Goldberg was chief of the OHA and Lawson's boss.

"I went after the governor's office for putting Bruce in charge of Cover Oregon given that he was in charge of the piece of crap system that we got from Oracle and the Health Authority. It just didn't make sense. The guy that was responsible for this lousy system is now put in charge of Cover Oregon, to whom he gave the lousy system," he told KATU on Thursday.

Jovick said he never worked directly for Goldberg but rather Cover Oregon's chief operating officer, Triz delaRosa, who resigned last month.

Jovick's email to staff went even further: "Bruce and his IT Director handed us one of the most rotten and absurd unworkable system applications imaginable. And they spent our federal funds doing it. Go figure!"

Cover Oregon went live on Oct. 1, 2013 but never managed to fully function as promised. Despite a grand vision, an earlier start and approximately $305 million from the federal government, the website has yet to enroll a single individual in a single sitting online. It's the only state in the country with that dubious distinction.

Jovick said a broken website was made worse by Goldberg and OHA spokeswoman Patty Wentz.

"Bruce brought Patty here to direct Communications, but she turned it into more of a propaganda ministry than a true communications department," Jovick wrote in the email. "Both of them proceeded to act with insulting, condescending, dismissive, intimidating, blaming, clandestine and generally nasty behavior toward a lot of staff."

On Thursday he told KATU that their management style felt like an oligarchy: a small group of people overseeing dozens of Cover Oregon employees who "had no interest in input from anyone else ... very in-your-face ...very angry."

The one Cover Oregon leader Jovick defended was Goldberg's predecessor, original Cover Oregon executive director Rocky King. King resigned in January citing medical reasons.

"The Governor, with the support of his health care and campaign advisers, trashed Rocky," Jovick wrote in the email.

On Thursday, Jovick said that he worked directly under King at Cover Oregon and said King was not only friendly to work with but transparent in his process.

Jovick said he spent two days working on the email and didn't intend to send it as an attack, but rather to acknowledge his colleagues' increasing disappointment and frustration with the project and management.

Indeed, Jovick's email praises the hardworking employees at Cover Oregon who he wrote, "figured out how to make the impossible work successfully" with "professionalism, integrity, creativity, mutual support, and dedication."

He also wrote that working at Cover Oregon was "not a black mark" on his colleagues' resumes.

Jovick said he didn't speak up earlier because he believed he would have been fired. It's the same reason he said no other Cover Oregon employees are willing to speak publicly about their experiences.

But he has no regrets.

"Part of the truth is out," he said.