ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The leader of Minnesota's health insurance exchange said Wednesday that some portion of its customers won't be able to nail down coverage ahead of a March 31 federal deadline by using its troubled website, and will need to do so by filing a paper application.
"First and foremost, we want people to use the online system," Scott Leitz, the interim CEO of MNsure, told its board of directors. "But we want to be honest: There's going to be folks who aren't going to be able to."
The MNsure website has been plagued by technical glitches that in recent weeks frustrated the efforts of thousands of Minnesota residents seeking to sign up for insurance under the new federal health care law. MNsure officials said Wednesday that most problems have now been resolved for people who wanted insurance starting Jan. 1 — the first day coverage was available under the new law — but he said they are expecting an even greater crush of activity ahead of the March 31 deadline. People who don't have health insurance after that date face a federal tax penalty.
"What we saw at the end of December was a spike in the number of folks seeking coverage," Leitz said. "We anticipate that again, but more extreme, starting in the month of March."
The MNsure website has experienced a host of bugs and glitches in processing and completing applications, from problems transferring information to insurance companies, to erroneous calculations of tax credits and coverage eligibility, to questions about security of information entered on the site. As problems mounted, the agency's toll-free call center became bogged down with calls, resulting in wait times that at times exceeded two hours.
Minnesota's Legislative Auditor, Jim Nobles, is mounting a comprehensive audit of MNsure's efforts so far. Leitz said MNsure also commissioned an independent review of its system by Optum, a UnitedHealth Group division. Those reviews are likely to vet decisions by leaders of MNsure, and technology provided by a number of private vendors that helped build MNsure systems.
MNsure's leaders are also likely to face tough questioning Thursday from state lawmakers at a hearing of an MNsure oversight committee that hasn't convened since last fall. Lawmakers are likely to raise questions about the private vendors, which to date have been paid $25 million.
Leitz said even with the state audit and independent review, it's unlikely all the site's technical problems can be resolved by March 31. That's why MNsure will encourage consumers jammed up in the system to instead file a paper application. MNsure is also adding a dozen new employees to the call center. Leitz said call center wait times are in most cases below an hour now, though he said that's still too long.
Leitz said it was too early to predict when the MNsure website would be fully functional.
Despite MNsure's problems, so far 71,982 people have signed up for insurance coverage through the exchange. According to newly released demographic details, 53 percent are women and the median age is 48. The largest number signed up for mid-level "silver" plans — about 35 percent of total enrollees. Of those nearly 72,000 enrollees, slightly more than 26,000 signed up for private insurance while the rest are on public plans.
In all, nearly 116,000 people have opened MNsure accounts.