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Oregon Governor Walks Out Of Interview Over Questions About State's Health Care Website

01/10/2014 03:59 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

KATU News' exclusive one-on-one interview with Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber ended abruptly Thursday when the station's interviewer asked about problems with the Cover Oregon website.

Kitzhaber's staff walked him out only four minutes after the interview began when the governor was asked whether he knew about problems with Carolyn Lawson, the chief information officer for Cover Oregon.

Lawson was responsible for the technical development of the Cover Oregon website, a state-run online marketplace where Oregonians could find and purchase health insurance. She resigned for “personal reasons” in November. Rocky King, the exchange's executive director, submitted his resignation last week.

Kitzhaber's staff suggested the station call Cover Oregon’s public-relations staff.

KATU has reported that an email sent in December 2012 from state Rep. Patrick Sheehan (R) to the governor's legislative director, warned of problems with Lawson. Sheehan, a member of the legislative oversight committee for Cover Oregon, accused Lawson in the email of presenting fraudulent testimony in a legislative hearing and speculated about her ties to the company building the website. Kitzhaber denied having seen the email, even though his legislative director responded to it, and claimed he didn’t know of problems with Lawson until late last year.

Kitzhaber was open to discussing Cover Oregon’s new enrollment numbers, though he acknowledged that the exchange’s website is unlikely to work for the foreseeable future. It was scheduled to go live Oct. 1, but still hasn't enrolled a single person online.

The governor claimed the exchange is actually beating expectations. “We figured that this would be a two-year process,” Kitzhaber said. “What we didn’t anticipate was actually this many [people enrolling]."

Oregon was the recipient of $1.9 billion in federal grants to improve the process it uses to provide health care to low-income individuals through the state's Medicaid program. According to Cover Oregon, about 170,000 people signed up to begin health insurance in January through Cover Oregon or the Oregon Health Plan. But because of the website's problems, the state had to hire hundreds of staff to process health insurance applications by paper and through call centers.

At a news conference this week in Portland, Kitzhaber said the state has hired a firm to conduct an independent review of what went wrong with the website.

State officials said Thursday that a technology team has until March to fix the website. At that point, the state will consider other options.

Kitzhaber is running for reelection this year.

UPDATE: Tuesday, Jan. 14, 4:30 p.m. -- Ian Greenfield, Kitzhaber's deputy communications director, emailed HuffPost after publication Saturday to say that KATU's characterization of the governor walking out was "misleading."

"KATU had an interview scheduled with the Governor at the end of this month, but they wanted something sooner. I offered to fit them in at the end of Thursday's press conference and before another appointment on his schedule. KATU accepted knowing that it would be brief," Greenfield said. "In fact, the cameras were set up inside a patient room at a busy health clinic, clearly not the setting for a long sit down interview. When time was running short, we let them know they had one more question, they asked it and then politely thanked us for taking the time to talk with them."

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