Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber and Republican rival Dennis Richardson faced off Thursday as the governor announced a long-expected lawsuit against Oracle Corp. in connection with the failed Cover Oregon website.

Kitzhaber, appearing before a legislative committee on information technology, said the lawsuit was one of three steps the state will take against the software giant.

"Oracle's failure is unacceptable to Oregonians who need and deserve access to quality health care," Kitzhaber said.

Kitzhaber requested Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, a separately elected official, to proceed with a lawsuit.

But Richardson, a lawyer and state representative from Central Point and the GOP nominee against Kitzhaber, questioned the prospects for such a lawsuit.

He said the state's failure to hire an overseer for the technology project, known as a "systems integrator," plus state contracts with Oracle that apparently are limited to time worked and materials provided, would work against it.

State's culpability

It was their first meeting since last week's primary, when Richardson won against five little-known opponents and Kitzhaber had no significant opposition.

Although Richardson is not a member of the committee, legislators are allowed to participate at the discretion of the chairman. Kitzhaber had not been scheduled by the committee, but he announced about two hours in advance that he would appear to testify about Cover Oregon.

"There is no question but that the combination ... created a perfect storm on the state's side that created this problem," Kitzhaber replied.

"But no one can convince me that Oracle, with a straight face, can say we didn't know you hired us to produce a functioning website. You don't get to be the second-largest software company in the world with that attitude. Yes, the state has culpability. We have addressed that. But yes, Oracle has culpability."

Kitzhaber also said, prior to Richardson's questioning, that he would ask for an investigation of Oracle by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and enlist the help of Oregon's congressional delegation to recoup money for Oregon.

Effective way to enroll

Oracle is based in Redwood City, Calif., but has an office in Hillsboro.

Despite spending of $248 million for a project to enable people to enroll people in private insurance or determine their eligibility for state-supported insurance under the Oregon Health Plan, the website has not enrolled anyone without assistance.

It has become a major political liability for Kitzhaber, a former Roseburg emergency-room physician who seeks a record fourth nonconsecutive term.

The Cover Oregon board has voted to join the federal electronic exchange for the next enrollment period this fall.

But when Richardson questioned whether Cover Oregon should remain as a public corporation, Kitzhaber said the answer should be supplied by the board and whoever is hired as its next executive director.

"The objective is to make sure that Oregonians have an effective way to enroll in commercial (insurance) products in a market that is competitive and transparent," he said.

peterwong@portlandtribune.com

twitter.com/capitolwong

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