With the final enrollment deadline nearing, MNsure is seeing a surge in interest among people seeking health insurance -- and experiencing a few more website problems along the way.

During the first 25 days of the month, the MNsure website experienced unplanned downtime on five different days, according to details presented at an MNsure board meeting on Wednesday, March 26.

In addition, a software update at the beginning of the month caused the number of pending applications in the MNsure system to more than double.

The problems are being addressed and haven't stopped MNsure from picking up the pace of enrollment, said Scott Leitz, MNsure's interim chief executive officer. Right now, the state's health insurance exchange is enrolling about 2,000 people per day.

The problems aren't nearly as bad, officials said, as software issues in December that led to mass frustration and an overwhelmed MNsure call center.

"We are adding additional capacity to the system right now," Leitz said following the board meeting in St. Paul. "This was expected and planned for -- that as we moved into March, particularly as we moved into the last few days ... that we would have additional load on the site."

The average wait time at the MNsure call center this week has been about eight minutes, Leitz told board members. That's longer than at some points earlier this month, but a far cry from average waits during December that routinely exceeded 60 minutes.

MNsure has more than doubled the number of call center workers answering phones.

"We expect the call volume to continue to rise until March 31, so we want people to be aware that one-minute wait times may not be the experience when they call," said MNsure spokesman Joe Campbell. "But it will be significantly better than it was last year."

Minnesota launched the MNsure health exchange last year to implement the federal Affordable Care Act, which requires almost all Americans to have health insurance or pay a tax penalty. People must sign up for coverage by March 31, or they could be subject to a tax of $95 or 1 percent of their annual income.

After this month, individuals seeking commercial health insurance won't have another chance to obtain coverage until Nov. 15, at which point policies for 2015 will be available. People who qualify for the Medicaid and MinnesotaCare can still enroll in the public health insurance programs after March 31.

MNsure hasn't released numbers to indicate whether the exchange is helping make a dent in the estimated 445,000 Minnesotans who lacked health insurance last year. But anecdotal evidence was on display Wednesday in Minneapolis, where state Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson met with people who've enrolled with help from Somali Health Solutions, a community group that employs health insurance counselors called "navigators."

Faisal Mire, 26, of Minneapolis said he's gone without health insurance for more than a decade, and has racked up some big medical bills. But after going through the MNsure website with help from navigator, Mire qualified for coverage with no premium from the state's Medical Assistance program.

"Finally, I feel safe," Mire said.

Somali Health Solutions has helped more than 1,000 people enroll, including nearly 600 people in Medical Assistance. Medical Assistance is Minnesota's version of the state-federal Medicaid health insurance program, and program enrollees account for about 52 percent of all MNsure enrollments thus far.

"We feel like the website is now crowded -- sometimes it says: 'We can't process now, please do it again later,' " said Asli Ashkir, executive director of Somali Health Solutions, when Jesson asked about the MNsure website. "But we understand -- because many people are rushing."

Jesson said the potential for last-minute snags explains why MNsure announced Monday a process for shielding people from penalties if technical problems prevent them from finalizing all steps of enrollment by March 31.

The number of MNsure page views increased by nearly one-third the first week of March, and the website attracted more than 100,000 new visitors during the first two weeks of the month. Last week, there were nearly 400,000 visits to the website.

MNsure board Chairman Brian Beutner called attention to figures showing there have been five unplanned website outages over the past 25 days.

"Twenty percent of the days having an unplanned outage doesn't seem very good," Beutner said. "Is the system stable, and can we handle what we're asking of it?"

Erik Larson, the chief operating officer at MNsure, responded that downtime on two of the days stemmed from problems at a federal data hub that MNsure must use to verify information about applicants.

Of the overall website performance, Leitz said: "We're going to be monitoring that really, really closely."

Back in December, more than 12,000 applications got stuck in the MNsure system due to problems with the software that determines if people qualify for federal tax credits or a public health insurance program. In recent weeks, MNsure officials have pointed out a significant decline in the number of these stuck cases to 983 by March 1.

But by March 8, the tally jumped to 3,447, according to numbers presented Wednesday. Leitz said the increase was due to a software update that has provided more stability to the website, but also caused a short-term increase in pending applications.

By March 15, the pending application total was down to 2,130, Leitz told board members, adding: "We'll have all those folks into coverage by March 31."

The state health insurance exchange says 148,000 people have now enrolled in coverage during the current six-month open enrollment period, which ends March 31.

The figure is about 10,000 enrollees higher than the total released Tuesday because previous figures didn't include a batch of applications that had been processed by hand over the past few months, MNsure officials said. Wednesday was the first time that MNsure has been able to include those enrollees in its overall tallies, said spokesman John Schadl.

©2014 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)