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Oregon exchange is stifling partners with ‘politically-motivated gag order’

The state most likely to be named the country’s worst Obamacare exchange is reportedly banning its partners from saying almost anything negative about it in a broad confidentiality agreement.

Radio host Lars Larson and his show’s legal expert Bruce McCain report that in order to contract with Cover Oregon, so-called “community partners” are forced to sign a far-reaching non-disparagement agreement that could put the organizations at risk of losing all their grant money if Oregon state officials decide they disagree with any unfavorable statements about the Obamacare exchange.

The agreement is comparable to the IRS targeting conservative groups, McCain argued, amounting to “the weight and full effect of the government using its power of the purse to coerce private entities. … It’s a chilling effect on speech.”

Larson, suspicious of the sunny attitude of Oregon health care organizations about the state’s flailing exchange, obtained a copy of the “Cover Oregon Community Partner Confidentiality Agreement” and confirmed its authenticity with Cover Oregon officials.

The document bans organizations that promote the exchange and help consumer apply from saying anything “false, misleading, deceptive, libelous, defamatory or obscene.” Community partners are part of an outreach program targeting “hard-to-reach, non-English speaking, geographically isolated, and underserved populations.”

A large portion of these groups would likely be best served through a functioning website, but Cover Oregon’s online enrollment is still not functioning. The state has successfully signed up 44 people since Oct. 1, at a cost of over $300 million dollars, and has now resorted to print applications in light of the site’s ongoing failure. (RELATED: Oregon exchange to spend $4 million on paper application surge)

But Community Partners working with such underserved populations may not be legally able to acknowledge Cover Oregon’s failures, for fear of having grant money taken away.

If state health officials believe a community partner has violated the agreement, Cover Oregon and the Oregon Health Authority are allowed to terminate the grant agreement entirely, at their “sole discretion.”

“I have almost three decades of public service in this state, and I did a lot of legal work for a large agency, and I have never seen anything remotely close to this,” McCain said on Larson’s radio show Friday. McCain worked in an Oregon sheriff’s office as a legal expert for years.

McCain noted that the document was created in October 2013, after the original contracts with Community Partners would have been signed — leaving organizations that had already signed on with Cover Oregon no choice but to signed the rigid additions.

Even before Obamacare’s launch on Oct. 1, the public was already seeing signs that Cover Oregon’s operations weren’t going well. The website’s launch was first delayed in August, leaving the public with the only option of going to insurance agents and community partners. The confidentiality agreement was updated to ban community partners from disparaging the state-run Obamacare exchange soon after.

“This is a politically-motivated gag order,” McCain concluded. “This is basically a reaction, in my opinion, to the bad press that Cover Oregon’s been getting.”

Update: Cover Oregon responded to The Daily Caller News Foundation after this article was posted and said interim director Bruce Goldberg was recently made aware of the language and has pledged to change the agreement. Spokeswoman Ariane Holm told TheDCNF Cover Oregon is “doing a complete review of all contracts with current partners (community partner, agents, carriers, etc.) and taking steps to remedy the language.”

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