Cover Oregon invites public to once-secret oversight meetings

SALEM, Ore. -- For the first time in almost two years, Cover Oregon opened its legislative oversight committee meetings to the public that were once held in secret. The newfound transparency came after KATU asked questions about whether those closed-door meetings broke state Sunshine laws.

Duane Bosworth, an attorney with David Wright Tremaine in Portland, who specializes in public records matters, told the On Your Side Investigators that he believes Cover Oregon violated the state law that requires the meetings be open to the public.

Cover Oregon's top leaders hosted the meeting Tuesday morning via a phone conference call with only two agenda items: Cover Oregon's enrollment numbers and the extended application period, recently announced by Gov. John Kitzhaber to give Oregonians more time to enroll as a result of the state health exchange's website problems.

Rep. Jim Thompson, R-Dallas, a member of Cover Oregon's legislative oversight committee invited the On Your Side Investigators to listen in on the call but it was over shortly after it began because of technical issues.

"They're having problems with the phone line," an unknown voice announced over the phone.

While the line that lawmakers called worked fine, Cover Oregon spokeswoman Amy Fauver said, during the conference call, the public line was not working correctly.

Thompson said the conference calls, as well as earlier face-to-face meetings held at the Capitol, were held monthly at the direction of Cover Oregon since May 2012 - about 20 times. The representative said Cover Oregon's executive directors led the meetings: first, Rocky King, then Dr. Bruce Goldberg.

The public and the media were never invited, something Thompson swears he never knew.

"It never occurred to anybody that this was a private meeting," Thompson said.

So who's decision was it to hold the meetings in private? That answer remains unclear.

"There was no decision," Thompson said. "That's just the way it was."

The On Your Side Investigators contacted Cover Oregon's spokeswoman, Ariane Holm, several times to find out who made the call to hold the meetings behind closed doors but Holm refused to answer questions surrounding that issue.

Even if the public had been allowed to listen in, Thompson believes people wouldn't have missed much.

"We were instructed to meet, listen to their update reports, and report back. We were a listening post for updates," Thompson said. "It always has been pretty much giving us information and status reports."

The law that created the state's health insurance exchange in 2011, Senate Bill 99, states the committee is supposed to provide advice and legislative oversight. Committee members include Rep. Thompson, Sen. Laurie Monnes-Anderson, Sen. Brian Boquist, and Rep. Mitch Greenlick.

But the On Your Side Investigators learned the committee did no such thing: no advising, no voting, no recommendations, no meeting minutes, no oversight.

"Absolutely not. No," Thompson said. "That was a total misnomer because even the way the committee was set up - we had no authority whatsoever."

Thompson contended the bill lacks teeth - pointing to what he believes is softer language, like the use of the word "may" rather than "shall" to advise Cover Oregon.

"It clearly says 'may' and ''may' in legislative language means you can do this if you want to but you're not required to do it,' he said.

With all that said, Thompson told KATU he grew increasingly concerned about Cover Oregon when he learned of mounting regulations by the federal government to ensure Cover Oregon would conform to Affordable Care Act rules. Thompson said he grew concerned Cover Oregon wouldn't be able to include that large of a volume of regulations that quickly.

"It wasn't until things started unraveling that we had a lot of concern about where we were going," Thompson said.

And yet, when the On Your Side Investigators pressed Thompson about speaking up to Cover Oregon about the concerns, he admitted, he didn't voice them.

"No, I didn't speak up to that extent because we were doing what we were instructed to do by our leadership appointment," Thompson said. "In retrospect, we didn't ask the right questions because we lacked the information on which to base those questions."

Thompson says the committee - and he vouched for all four lawmakers - never received important monthly Maximus reports, the quality assurance reports red-flagging Cover Oregon's website problems.

"if we were denied access, I'm really ticked off," he said. "But if somebody thought, well, they're just not important to this committee, I'm equally ticked off because we don't have the kind of relationship we should be having."

Again, KATU reached out to Holm for answers to this claim but she did not respond to this issue.

Thompson added that he regularly heard more information about Cover Oregon through the media than he did through the committee.

It's another apparent lack of oversight, after the findings of a recent independent investigation revealed state managers failed to heed reports about technical problems that prevented the exchange from launching. The website still doesn't allow Oregonians to self-enroll for health care online in one sitting. Oregon is the only state in the country with that dubious distinction.

Tuesday's meeting was quickly canceled and rescheduled. As of late Tuesday, it didn't appear Cover Oregon set a new meeting date but assured KATU that the recording of Tuesday's meeting - however brief - would be available on the Cover Oregon website.

Goldberg hosted Tuesday's conference call despite his recent resignation following Cover Oregon's disastrous rollout of the website. KATU learned Goldberg's still running Cover Oregon's day-to-day operations until the Cover Oregon board finds a replacement.

Full coverage of the troubled Cover Oregon website: