Minnesota's new health insurance exchange is set to launch next week, and officials are still trying to reassure skeptical lawmakers that the system is good to go.
MNsure, a $110 million online marketplace designed to help more than 1 million Minnesotans buy health insurance, opens for business on Tuesday, Oct. 1.
But creating a government agency and a complex computer network in less than a year hasn't been easy. The fledgling health exchange has been plagued by glitches and missteps since it was signed into law this spring, raising alarms at the Capitol.
"A lot of people are unsure about MNsure," said Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, during Tuesday's hastily organized meeting of the Legislature's MNsure Oversight Committee.
Lawmakers gathered to examine a recent data breach at MNsure. Earlier this month, a MNsure employee accidentally e-mailed the Social Security numbers of some 1,500 insurance agents in one of its training programs to another agent. The breach didn't involve the database that consumers will use to shop for their health coverage, but it did raise questions at the Capitol about MNsure's ability to safeguard personal data.
Despite the breach, and ongoing questions about MNsure's grant process, agency officials say the launch is going as smoothly as can be expected for a system that was cobbled together in a matter of months. Agency officials say they have fielded thousands of calls already in their call centers from people curious about this new way to buy insurance.
The idea behind the health exchanges, one of the cornerstones of the Obama administration's Affordable Care Act, is to create a place where people can shop online easily for health coverage. Starting next year, all Americans will be required to have health insurance, and the exchanges are supposed to make the process easy and — supporters hope — affordable, with the help of tax breaks for those who are eligible.
Earlier this month, MNsure officials announced that they will be offering some of the lowest policy rates among state-run exchanges, at least in the first year. Minnesota is one of 17 states setting up online marketplaces, rather than using the federal exchange system.
Racing, but still on track
MNsure officials say that, so far, they are ready to open the six-month enrollment period on schedule next week. The kickoff would only be delayed if they spot a "smoking gun" warning of serious problems in the system.
"Let's not judge ourselves on the first 100 yards of the marathon," MNsure Board Chair Brian Beutner told the committee. "MNsure will be open on Oct. 1, delivering the lowest rates in the nation with choices for every Minnesotan for better, more affordable health care insurance."
The agency is still scrambling to get ready for the launch. The insurance agents whose Social Security information was e-mailed out were participating in a training program to learn how to navigate the system. With just days to go before deadline, none of MNsure's brokers or navigators have completed that training, although many are set to finish up next week.
Republican lawmakers had pointed questions about MNsure's early errors, and so did Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles, who is conducting a review of the system in the wake of the data breach. MNsure will dip into its own budget to offer credit monitoring to the brokers affected by the breach, and the offending e-mail was quickly deleted by the recipient. The employee responsible no longer works for MNsure.
Chris Buse, Minnesota's chief information security officer, said the MNsure marketplace will have "state of the art" data privacy protection. The complex system has to link customers not just to private insurance companies, but to state and federal computer networks, as well.
Hoppe and other Republican lawmakers weren't reassured.
"People are nervous about this. People are nervous about their data. … The system is only as tough, only as secure, as the people who are using the data," he said. "We are not leaving the people of the state of Minnesota with a very good feeling about how this is going to work."
But Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said he was reassured by MNsure's rapid response to the problems it has encountered so far.
"I am very sorry that this occurred," said Lourey, who sponsored the Senate version of the legislation that created the MNsure system. "But I am also very glad to see the robust response that happened in a short time afterward — 28 minutes after the initial e-mail took place, the machinery was in place to make sure this was put in a box and treated appropriately. And the machinery is still ongoing today."