Republicans on MNsure Oversight Panel Seek Answers on Rollout Problems

A letter sent Monday to the DFL chairs of the committee stated Gov. Mark Dayton and his top advisers were warned about health exchange defect well in advance.

by Christopher Snowbeck, McClatchy News Service / April 8, 2014

Republicans want top officials from the Dayton administration to answer questions about what they knew of problems with the MNsure health exchange before its rocky launch on Oct. 1.

Citing recent news reports, Republicans on a MNsure oversight committee said that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and his top advisers were warned about health exchange defects "well in advance of their decision to make the website available to consumers," they wrote in a letter sent Monday to the DFL chairs of the committee.

Asking that Dayton's human services commissioner, former chief of staff and the former MNsure executive director attend a committee meeting scheduled for Wednesday, the Republicans wrote: "Minnesotans deserve answers to the continued questions about the management failure at MNsure prior to its launch."

Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, co-chairman of the legislative oversight committee, said in a voicemail message Monday that he had forwarded the letter to Dayton and expected "the administration to have people to answer questions appropriately" during the meeting.

Linden Zakula, a spokesman for Dayton, blasted the request in a statement, saying Republicans should be "as interested in hearing current good news, as they are in dredging up old bad news."

Two proposed witnesses are no longer employed by the state, Zakula said. Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said Monday she is scheduled to testify at a Senate committee meeting on funding for the state security hospital in St. Peter -- but if that ends soon enough, she may be able to attend the oversight hearing.

The Republicans' letter, Zakula said, makes "outrageously false statements about MNsure's current condition, while they attempt to divert the committee's attention to circumstances that are six months old."

Republicans said in their letter that the Wednesday session provides "a unique opportunity to follow up with those from the governor's office and MNsure about their joint decision to go live on October 1."

The letter was written by oversight committee members Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake; Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge; Rep. Tara Mack, R-Apple Valley; and Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska.

On Sept. 19, Dayton was briefed by MNsure leaders and told there was a possibility that the health exchange website might not be able to launch on Oct. 1, Zakula said. The meeting with Dayton was reported Sunday by the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune newspaper.

Prior to the meeting, Dayton had been receiving weekly or semi-weekly updates about MNsure, he said, but the tone changed on Sept. 19.

"It went from green to yellow -- it did not go to red," Zakula said. "The focus was basically on what needs to be fixed and how do we get it fixed and how do we meet the deadline."

The website did launch Oct. 1. Users experienced problems from the start -- some of which MNsure officials at the time said were due to problems with a database maintained by the federal government. But the problems weren't the issues identified prior to the launch, said Joe Campbell, a MNsure spokesman.

"There was an assessment done that laid out concerns about the website leading up to the launch," Campbell said. "What consumers experienced after the launch were circumstances that we were made aware of after Oct. 1."

In their letter Monday, Republicans said the decision to launch on Oct. 1 subjected "thousands of Minnesotans to a website that simply was not and is currently not ready for consumers."

By December, more than 12,000 applications for coverage were stuck within the MNsure system and required rescue. Frustrated consumers overwhelmed the MNsure call center, where average wait-times exceeded an hour.

The performance of MNsure's website and call center improved during the second half of a six-month open enrollment period that stretched from Oct. 1 through March 31. As of April 1, more than 169,000 Minnesotans had enrolled in coverage through MNsure, with most signing up for public health insurance coverage.

Sign-ups for private coverage through MNsure fell short of initial projections.

Minnesota launched the MNsure health insurance exchange to implement the federal Affordable Care Act. The exchange is an online marketplace where individuals and small businesses can purchase coverage, but website problems have meant that more than 25,000 had to apply for coverage with through paper applications.

In the final two weeks of March, thousands completed an enrollment attempt form to signify that they were trying to obtain coverage through MNsure.

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