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Cover Oregon sets application deadline in 2 weeks

Jonathan j. Cooper, Associated Press

Cover Oregon executive director Rocky King, left, is joined by Cover Oregon chief information officer Aaron Karjala at a Joint Interim Committee on Legislative Audits, Information Management and Technology hearing in Salem, Ore., Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013. The committee had questions about Oregon's troubled health insurance exchange, which still hasn't launched its online enrollment system and severely lags other states in signing people up for health care under the new federal health law.(AP Photo/Don Ryan)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) -- People who want health coverage beginning in January through Oregon's troubled insurance exchange need to act fast.

State officials said Wednesday they don't expect to have the online enrollment system working in time for people to enroll in plans that begin on the first of the year. They also announced that paper applications, their backup system, must be mailed within just two weeks, by Dec. 4.

Exchange Director Rocky King faced sharp questioning from state lawmakers for the first time since his organization missed the October deadline to allow people to enroll online.

King said the latest projections show the system should be ready for individuals to enroll online beginning Dec. 16, which would mean people who enroll on the first day would get coverage beginning in February.

"We're not broken," King told lawmakers. "It's just not done."

Because key pieces of the back-end technology weren't finished, King said, exchange managers and contractors couldn't fully test the system until it was too late to fix the serious problems that came to light.

The exchange, known as Cover Oregon, is intended to let people shop for coverage, compare plans and find out whether they qualify for tax credits under the federal health law. Cover Oregon has resorted to processing applications by hand because the online portal didn't work correctly.

King said the project has been elevated to the highest levels at Oregon's main technology consultant, Oracle, thanks in part to prodding from the governor's office and members of the congressional delegation. He said Oracle has dispatched a senior staffer who reports directly to founder and chief executive Larry Ellison and is now overseeing the project.

King said he's proceeding as if the system won't work as promised on Dec. 16 because Oracle has missed numerous previous deadlines.

"I'm assuming it's not going to work, and I'm putting in place all those contingencies I could possibly put in place as if it's not going to work," King said.

People who wait to enroll online, assuming the system works on schedule in mid-December, will have coverage that begins in February. So will people who miss the Dec. 4 deadline to apply on paper. The enrollment period continues through March 31.

The biggest challenge for programmers has been determining whether people are eligible for tax credits, Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program. King said that feature has been launched for insurance agents and community groups, a key milestone, although applications still must be submitted through the mail.

Cover Oregon has lowered its projections for first-year enrollments from a minimum of 128,000 people to 114,000, King said.

"We envision that the numbers will be significantly lower than what we originally anticipated at the beginning," King said. "But next year we anticipate making most of those up."

State lawmakers questioned King about whether the exchange will be able to enroll enough people to break even once federal grant money runs out at the end of next year.

"This would just be kind of a bad joke about the state's ability to build and deploy large IT projects, except for the impact on people's lives," said Rep. Jason Conger, a Bend Republican who is running for U.S. Senate.