MNsure officials say they must do a better job of helping Minnesotans get insurance when the next open-enrollment period begins in November, and on Thursday the agency took its first steps to make that happen.

The state's new health insurance exchange began seeking input from more than 1,400 navigators and community groups about how to structure a new round of federal grants worth $4 million to boost outreach and enrollment efforts.

In a draft version of the program, MNsure said it aims to fund groups in three key areas, with the main focus on making inroads into hard-to-reach populations that are currently uninsured or have the highest health needs, including ethnic, racial and immigrant groups, young adults and those who are homeless or have mental illnesses. MNsure also is looking for organizations with a regional network that uses "innovative and collaborative"strategies to break down barriers to enrollment.

After being criticized last fall, MNsure is getting an early start on the grantmaking effort this year, and touting a more open and clearly defined process.

Citizens and lawmakers rebuked the agency last year for not awarding grants to several key groups with deep ties to the community, particularly those focused on reaching African Americans and those needing mental health care.

MNsure's vetting process also was scrutinized, with one potential grantee making news over a brush with a sheriff's deputy and another small-business advocacy group having ties to the DFL.

The imbroglio prompted the MNsure board to open a second round of funding worth $750,000 to expand resources for some overlooked groups. In all, 41 organizations received grants.

"The hope is we will be able to broaden both the geographic scope and the depth of applicants," said MNsure board member Peter Benner. He said the navigator program fell short this winter for a number of reasons, including a poorly functioning website and lack of a dediĀ­cated portal for navigators and other hands-on assisters to use.

"We're looking forward to this next section of grants and believe we'll be in much better shape entering into open enrollment than we were in October," he said.

John Freeman, a lead navigator for Health Access MN, provided early feedback to MNsure about what worked and what didn't last winter. The St. Paul-based coalition received about $326,000 for outreach and enrollment efforts working chiefly through libraries, he said.

The new process seems to hit all the right spots, Freeman said, including making sure that grant applicants demonstrate that they have the skills and relationships to work with at-risk populations.

"I know this is a starting point," Freeman said, adding that MNsure is "trying to make sure that money is well spent and focusing on who will be best served by the efforts."

The proposal will be presented at Wednesday's board of directors meeting. MNsure aims to issue a request-for-proposals on May 5 and set a June 2 deadline for organizations to submit applications. The grants will be announced on Sept. 2, giving groups enough time to ramp up before open enrollment begins on Nov. 15.