Consumers are having an easier time getting through the MNsure website as a result of efforts to fix technology issues and beef up call center staff, officials at the state’s new online health insurance exchange said Wednesday.

While the website remains “less than perfect,” it is stabilizing, MNsure interim CEO Scott Leitz said in a measured progress report delivered to state lawmakers and an increasingly antsy board of directors in separate meetings.

“We still have a ways to go, but we have taken significant steps forward” in reducing error rates and adding staff, Leitz said.

The real test will come next month, when consumers are expected to flock to the site ahead of the March 31 end of open enrollment. Minnesotans who don’t have insurance by then could face a tax penalty under the Affordable Care Act.

The MNsure website is a place for consumers who don’t get insurance through the workplace to comparison-shop among various options for health insurance coverage. But the site has been bedeviled by technical problems since it launched on Oct. 1, leading to a cascade of issues, including wait times of more than an hour at its help desk during peak times.

Software vendors have addressed a host of problems and an additional 50 temporary operators are now answering help desk calls, now that the state has hired an outside company to bring in reinforcements. Another 50 workers will be on the job by Feb. 19 and are expected to stay on through April.

Leitz said the “surge of help” builds on progress made in recent weeks to reduce wait times and get people enrolled. About 98 percent of website visitors are able to complete enrollment, vs. 70 percent just six weeks ago. Error rates have dropped from 17 percent in November to 4 to 5 percent.

Updated figures show that 92,498 people have used MNsure to buy health insurance, as of Feb. 8. But about two-thirds of those getting coverage are being enrolled in one of the state’s public health programs, Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare.

The gains to government-subsidized programs are one measure of success in the federal health law’s goal of getting more people insured. But if the outsized proportion of enrollees continues to come from public programs, it could affect the financing of the exchange, which must be self-supporting by 2015.

That’s because the MNsure operation is funded by a fee based on the premium price of plans sold to individuals buying private insurance.

The agency’s financial future was a key question raised by lawmakers at a morning meeting at the State Capitol of the MNsure Legislative Oversight Committee.

Republican legislators were skeptical of MNsure’s ability to sign up enough people to make the agency a self-sustaining operation, noting that MNsure remains 15 percent below its worst-case scenario projections for enrollment.

MNsure to date has been funded with about $146 million in federal grants, and additional grants are helping pay for operations in this initial year.

The organization is expected to cost $56 million to more than $58 million in 2015 and 2016.

Rep. Tara Mack, R-Apple Valley, blasted the agency for its inability to provide what she views as the most important metric of all: the number of people signing up for insurance through MNsure who didn’t have coverage at the time, which she called the agency’s “No. 1 goal.”

She said “it’s a bit shocking” that MNsure can’t provide those numbers yet. “I hope that is corrected going forward,” Mack said.

Leitz promised that the agency will move that issue up its priority list. The agency was asking applicants that question, but said there’s no way now to share it yet with legislators and the public.

Sen. Tony Lourey, D-Kerrick, said there are other ways to gather that information, such as surveys. “We are not going to require that people tell their personal stories in order to purchase a plan through MNsure,” Lourey said.

Republicans disagreed, saying it is important to gather such information quickly from applicants so that legislators can determine whether the program is worth the expense.

“If we are covering people who had insurance before, what is the point of having an exchange?” asked Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska.

MNsure Board Chairman Brian Beutner took a moment at the meeting with lawmakers to “apologize to all Minnesotans” who have been affected by enrollment defects and long wait times at the call center.

“While thousands have been helped, many have had serious problems with MNsure,” he said.

At board meeting later, MNsure board member Phil Norrgard, director of human services for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, noted the contrast between the enthusiastic mood of the early days, with the promise of ushering in a new era of health insurance reform, and today’s ongoing frustrations.

“It was thrilling to be part of it,” he said, speaking of the board’s work and that of the many state employees involved. “But we didn’t get things up to speed … that left a lot of folks sad and disappointed.”

©2014 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)