State officials offered assurances Wednesday that software fixes to the flawed MNsure health insurance exchange are happening as planned, and that the system should be in good working order by the Nov. 15 start of open enrollment.
Still grappling with consumer fallout and political pressure over last year’s troubled rollout, MNsure officials said changes are being made to the system that will allow more time for testing and that sufficient backup plans are in development if things go wrong.
MNsure is preparing for the “worst case, if that comes about,” interim Chief Operating Officer Wes Kooistra told the agency’s board of directors, but he added that all hands are on deck to ensure an “improved user experience for 2015.”
IBM installed its final software upgrades over the weekend, officials said, a move that should resolve one of several major logjams that have prevented consumers from seamlessly logging onto the MNsure website and enrolling in health insurance coverage.
The fixes will allow consumers to automatically renew last year’s coverage or make changes after a “life event,” such as having a child, moving or getting married.
Additional upgrades by other outside vendors will be added in the next two weeks, according to MNsure, allowing system testing to begin in early September.
“We learned a lot last year,” said Tom Baden of MN.IT, the state government’s technology office. Baden told the board that it should be “encouraged” by the progress being made to improve the system, and that it wasn’t necessary “to throw the baby out with the bath water.”
“The foundation is solid, the infrastructure is stable,” Baden said, “It’s secure. It’s performing as designed. The blueprint is still solid.”
As part of a new restructuring of vendor contracts, MN.IT has now been given authority to oversee all IT efforts related to MNsure. That function originally was assigned to Maximus, a Reston, Va.,-based company that was hired as the state’s lead vendor in July 2012 and awarded a $46 million contract.
After months of dealing with a hobbled system, the state took over the role of directing subcontractors in February 2013, but payments to three subcontractors continued to flow through Maximus.
Contracts with all four vendors expired June 30, but the state extended contracts with the existing companies, IBM, EngagePoint and Curam. MNsure ended its relationship with Maximus, which it ended up paying $41 million for its work and that of the other vendors.
MNsure has set aside about $10 million to pay for IT enhancements going forward, which includes broader responsibilities for MN.IT. The allotments are within budget, officials said.
Even as the overhaul of the existing system moves ahead, problems continue to dog consumers trying to use the website, to the dissatisfaction of several board members.
Thousands of Minnesotans continue to experience long wait times at the call center, and many simply abandon their efforts.
“We keep running into different versions of the same problem: They aren’t getting help and they are frustrated,” said Dr. Kathryn Duevel, who said the call center problems “need to get more attention.”
“It’s our public face,” she said. “And that message goes farther than our wonderful positive messages.”
About 3,800 people are still being manually moved through the system because of a change in insurance, such as losing a job or a change in marital status, said Kooistra. That number is down from about 4,500, and all cases are expected to be resolved in four to six weeks.
“People are working night and day to get through these buckets, as we call them, and they are making headway,” he said.
Minnesota was one of about a dozen states that ended up building its own insurance exchange, new online shopping marketplaces created under the Affordable Care Act. The federal government provided about $155 million for the effort to build, market and launch MNsure.
More than 289,445 Minnesotans have used the MNsure system as a gateway to insurance. That figure includes 53,491 people who have purchased private health coverage. More than 80 percent of Minnesotans enrolled through MNsure to date qualify for government-subsidized health programs, Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare.
MNsure has hired Katie Burns as its new deputy director of operations and chief operating officer. Burns has been with MNsure since the fall of 2012, and has spent 15 years working with health and human services policy, financing and market transparency. She replaces Erik Larson, whose departure was announced in late May.