MNsure awarded bonuses before the job was done

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2014 - 6:33 PM

Governor, chairman need to step up and take more responsibility.

The bad news just keeps coming for MNsure, the state’s balky, beleaguered new health insurance marketplace.

The latest self-inflicted wound came less than a week after an outside review painfully confirmed that the new health insurance marketplace was plagued not just by bad software from vendors but also by its own dysfunctional management.

That 14 MNsure managers were awarded performance bonuses for their work before the Oct. 1 launch understandably rankled Minnesotans. News that roughly $26,000 had been divided among the 14 based on their performance between July and September surfaced Wednesday after Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, complained about the bonuses in a letter to Gov. Mark Dayton. Some managers also got a 3 percent annual raise in July.

Hoppe went overboard comparing the incentives package to “the worst excesses of Wall Street,” but his ire was not misplaced.

Consumers are still working to push their applications through the glitch-filled MNsure system or fighting the call center’s long but improving wait times. Although MNsure officials scrambled to point out that the bonuses were awarded for work done before the site’s meltdown in December and that the Legislature approved the incentive plan, this context did little to alleviate simmering anger over a website that was supposed to make it easier to buy health insurance but that too often made it a bigger headache.

It’s probably just as well that MNsure officials didn’t further defend the payments by comparing state employees with their private-sector counterparts. Although IT professionals are in high demand across the country and bonuses and other perks are often part of their private-sector compensation packages, government employees are working for the taxpayers. Given the toxic politics surrounding MNsure and health reform, awarding bonuses before a successful launch was premature.

The state’s patience with MNsure is already perilously thin, and news of the ill-timed incentives only deepened the deficit in public confidence. That makes the work harder for those laboring to improve the site.

MNsure already has lost its executive director, April Todd-Malmlov, who resigned for personal reasons in early December after taking a two-week vacation during the site’s fall rollout. While interim executive director Scott Leitz has drawn praise from legislators, Dayton and MNsure board Chairman Brian Beutner did not inspire confidence this week with their reactions to the bonus news.

Neither put the needs of consumers first. Nor did they take the “buck-stops-here” responsibility they should have. Instead, they put their reputations first as they tried to distance themselves from MNsure’s latest problem.

In a Star Tribune story, a Dayton spokesman said MNsure’s governing board acts independently and handles personnel issues, adding that the governor was not aware of the incentives. Beutner, in turn, said the board approved compensation for the site’s top executive but not others — effectively blaming the departed Todd-Malmlov for the pay boosts.

This exercise was a sorry reminder of how blame often rolls downhill even when it shouldn’t. Beutner, as the board’s chairman, is essentially admitting how little insight the board has into the site’s actual operations. He should have apologized for being disengaged, instead of casting blame elsewhere.

Dayton’s statement conveniently neglected to point out that he appointed the MNsure board. The site is also one of the signature efforts of his first term. Saying he was far removed also doesn’t reflect well on his oversight of such a critical initiative.

More important, the two “I didn’t do it” responses reflect that Dayton and Beutner don’t understand what made other states successful in launching new marketplaces. Kentucky is often cited as an example that the new websites can work well. Kynect, as the site is known, is a success for many reasons — its straightforward design and accessible community assistance, among them. But Kynect also had a governor and other state officials who were all in and worked tirelessly to promote the site and make it work.

MNsure’s future doesn’t just depend on an outside fix-it firm. It also needs strong state leadership and support. Dayton and Beutner need to step up, not step away.

  • BONUS DETAILS

    The average bonus awarded to 14 MNsure managers during the three months before the website’s launch was $1,882. The highest individual bonus was $2,569. The lowest: $962.

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