Lawmakers putting MNsure on the hot seat

The interim CEO and board chair of MNsure, the state's new online health insurance marketplace, faces a grilling about its troubled website on Thursday from Minnesota lawmakers.

Scott Leitz goes before a Legislative Oversight Committee whose members include Republicans strongly opposed to MNsure's creation. And the hearing takes place with the online health insurance marketplace under fire from angry, frustrated consumers, an unhappy governor, and an increasingly critical legislative auditor.

• Previously: MNsure leader says there's more work needs to be done

The committee's co-chairman Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, says the hearing has a full agenda, with lots of questions.

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"We're going to look at some of the [information technology] issues," along with the length of call center wait times," he said. "There was a security issue identified about a month ago that apparently has been resolved, but we want to hear directly from the person that found it."

The committee will also hear from happy MNsure customers, who found better coverage at a lower price than they'd paid before. But positive stories about MNsure have been far and few between, particularly whhen weighed against a chorus of complaints from consumers who have been stuck in the MNsure application system or subjected to hours on hold.

Equally vocal about his disapproval, Gov. Mark Dayton has pointed his sharpest criticism at IBM Curam, one of MNsure's software contractors -- this past weekend, its engineers took the website down in order to improve it.

MNsure's interim CEO Scott Leitz says improvements in the past week have dislodged about 1,100 consumers who were stuck in the application process. And while he says the site continues to improve daily, Leitz acknowledges only half a dozen of 21 problems the govenor specified to IBM Curam have been fixed.

The big question is whether MNsure will work as promised before the end of March, the deadline for Minnesotans to obtain health insurance coverage or face a penalty under the federal health care law. Leitz says it still won't work seamlessly by then. "When I say we are probably not going to have a perfectly functioning site by March 31, that means we're going to have to make sure that we have ways for people to get coverage by March 31," he said.

To get more answers about what went wrong when, MNsure announced it has contracted with a company called Optum, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth, to determine the depth of the online insurance exchange's problems. Optum will perform the analysis free of charge with preliminary results available next week.

The role of MNsure's information technology vendors is also sure to come up during the oversight hearing. For example, Rep. Joe Atkins is supplying committee members with a statement from vendor Maximus, outlining the chronology of its involvement in MNsure.

Minnesota's Department of Commerce awarded Virginia-based Maximus a $41 million agreement in July 2012 to build MNsure's website as lead contractor; IBM Curam, Connecture, and EngagePoint were subcontractors.

The summary says even though Maximus was hired to lead the other tech firms to design and development the website, that changed in 2013. For a reason not detailed in the summary, it says MNsure staff essentially took over Maximus' role in developing and leading the project last February. It asserts MNsure changed the approach for establishing the system's requirements.

Meanwhile, MNsure announced updated enrollment numbers yesterday showing that about 72,000 Minnesotans have signed up for coverage as of the end of the year. That's up about one third from Dec. 24. Of those, about two-thirds are receiving government coverage such as Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare. About 26,000 have signed up for commercial insurance. Of those, the median age has dropped a couple years to age 48; with slightly more wom 53 percent signing up than men, with 47 percent.

Despite the MNsure website's problems, Leitz still encourages Minnesotans to use it. But he says MNsure is bringing back an alternative for those still having trouble -- paper applications that staffers will enter into the system by hand.

"The important thing in our mission here is to get people into health coverage," he said.