Governor challenges GOP MNsure critics ahead of hearing

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Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday accused Republican critics of MNsure of waging a "propaganda campaign" to try to destroy the program.

Republicans want to use Wednesday's legislative oversight hearing on the state online insurance marketplace to focus on the problems that plagued the website since it went live in October. They argue that the state spent millions of dollars to create the health care exchange and that the system failed to deliver. They want answers about what went wrong.

Democrats say there were problems, but the system is now working much better. Dayton, who said the focus should be on moving the program forward, dismissed the criticism by Republicans, which he said amounts to a political issue for the fall elections.

"It's a farce. They're making a mockery of the word 'oversight.' Oversight means you look at it objectively and fairly and at what's really going on," Dayton said. "nd now that there's good news about MNsure, they want to go back and dredge up what's happened six months ago."

For months, Republicans have criticized the rollout of MNsure, which was plagued with problems. The website failed nearly from the start. Users could not create accounts on the site, and many called customer assistance lines only to wait hours on the phone.

Many eventually bypassed the website and obtained insurance coverage directly from insurers. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported this week that the governor knew about the website's problems in September yet the rollout continued.

Dayton said he was told about the problems that month but said the recommendation was to move forward.

"In hindsight, I think that was the right decision," Dayton said. "I didn't have any inkling of persisting problems until the middle of November. The first six weeks, MNsure, from everything that was visible and everything I was told, was having its issues and problems but they were taking care of those. The main problem was the federal site was dragging it down too often."

MNsure's original executive director, April Todd-Malmlov, resigned in December as the problems continued to mount. The agency hired a new interim executive director in Scott Leitz, and 169,000 people enrolled in health insurance by the March 31 deadline.

Now Dayton wants to pivot the conversation towards the positive aspects of the Affordable Care Act. But State Rep. Tara Mack, R-Apple Valley, said reviewing the record is still important.

"I don't think we want to make it look bad. I think that it's doing that on its own to a certain extent," said Mack, a member of the MNsure oversight committee. "If the governor isn't going to acknowledge that, somebody needs to. Otherwise we're failing Minnesotans."

Mack said she wants to know greater detail about MNsure's budget, when decisions were made about the website and why leaders continued to move forward.

"I would think it would be in the governor's best interest and our best interest in the Legislature to make sure that we are delivering a good product to the people of Minnesota," she said. "A lot of promises were made last spring about this being the Travelocity of health insurance. I think we're far from that right now."

Mack isn't the only Republican raising questions about MNsure. It's been a major talking point for Republican candidates for governor.

"What I would hope the Democrats would add to their agenda this session is to try to implement some bipartisan fixes to make this MNsure problem just a little bit better," said state Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville, one of several Republicans who aims to challenge Dayton in November.

Dayton and DFL legislative leaders aren't ready to make any changes to MNsure. The governor said more people are getting insurance that has better coverage.

"To evaluate its success or failures six months into the undertaking is just shortsighted and unrealistic," he said. "It's going to take a couple of years to get these things ironed out, to get it working the way it should and then we can evaluate the costs and benefits and the like."

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