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Published December 16, 2013, 10:12 PM

Web woes near deadline are latest MNsure problem

Minnesotans who want new health insurance on Jan. 1 have a week to buy policies through the state-run MNsure program, but problems continue to surface as that deadline nears.

By: Don Davis, Forum News Service

ST. PAUL -- Minnesotans who want new health insurance on Jan. 1 have a week to buy policies through the state-run MNsure program, but problems continue to surface as that deadline nears.

On Monday, for instance, people wanting to sign up on the MNsure website were greeted with: "We are currently experiencing issues with new applications requesting 1/1/14 plan coverage. We are working to resolve this issue."

MNsure spokeswoman Jenni Bowring-McDonough said she did not know the problem's cause.

She said that anyone who signs up and pays for insurance by Dec. 23 will have coverage Jan. 1.

The web issue is one of a number of problems that plague MNsure, issues ranging from nearly hour-long waits to getting anyone to answer the MNsure telephone to its director taking a two-week Costa Rica vacation last month during what Gov. Mark Dayton called a critical time for the insurance-sales agency.

“It’s up to the governor now,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said as he and Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, urged Democrat Dayton to fix the problems.

MNsure is a separate agency and the governor has no direct control over it, but Daudt and Hann said Dayton is the one who must take action.

Fellow Republican Scott Hounor, a governor candidate, said there is nothing Dayton can do. Honour was especially upset about the executive director’s Costa Rica trip last month.

"Normally, I’d call on the governor to replace the director, but the Obamacare exchange law he helped create and signed puts MNSure beyond oversight of the governor or the Legislature,” Honour said. “Gov. Dayton’s MNSure doesn’t answer to anyone.”

Dayton Press Secretary Matt Swenson said that his boss “has been very clear that the current state of the exchange is unacceptable.”

MNsure's website has had issues from the beginning as many Minnesotans could not sign up for new policies. Some of the woes were blamed on problems with a federal computer system, which MNsure must use to determine whether applicants qualify for price breaks.

With so many problems, the exchange has nearly doubled the number of people answering questions via telephone, (855) 366-7873. More than 90 people are on MNsure phone duty.

The wait time for people calling Monday afternoon was 45 minutes, down from nearly an hour at times last week.

The website itself always is open for “window shopping,” Bowring-McDonough said, and people now have an extended time of 6 a.m. to midnight seven days a week to create accounts and buy insurance.

Bowring-McDonough said that MNsure advices customers to pay for insurance via credit card on the MNsure website for the quickest service.

On Sunday, KSTP-TV in the Twin Cities reported that MNsure Executive Director April Todd-Malmlov vacationed in Costa Rica with Jim Golden, who leads the Minnesota Medical Assistance program. They work for different agencies, but policies available on MNsure cover Minnesotans receiving MA benefits.

MNsure and the Department of Human Services, where Golden works, said there was no conflict of interest in their relationship. The Star Tribune reports that they live together in St. Paul.

MNsure officials indicated that Todd-Malmlov's vacation was fine with them. A MNsure statement said: “Members of the MNsure Board were aware of her absence. She was available via phone and email and communicated with staff on a daily basis, providing leadership and direction as needed.”

One in five Minnesotans eventually will buy insurance from private companies through MNsure. Some are those who now buy private insurance; others are on Medical Assistance (Minnesota’s version of Medicaid) and MinnesotaCare (state-subsidized insurance).

Dayton and Minnesota legislators created MNsure earlier this year in response to the federal Affordable Care Act, which requires a web-based insurance policy purchasing option. While 36 states opted to let the federal government establish their online sales presence, Minnesota MNsure supporters said they preferred an insurance marketplace that could better serve their state's residents.

Most Minnesotans will not use MNsure because nearly all companies that now provide employees with insurance are expected to continue to do so.

MNsure numbers (through end of November):

• 50,000 accounts created

• 32,000 health insurance policy applications finished

• 14,405 signed up for federally funded Medical Assistance

• 10,200 signed up for state-subsidized MinnesotaCare

• 50 was median age for those buying commercial insurance

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