Last month, while Minnesota's new health insurance exchange site was scrambling to fix glitches and under fire from critics, its director was on vacation.
MNsure director April Todd-Malmlov took a two-week vacation to Costa Rica around Thanksgiving. Gov. Mark Dayton defended her right to take a pre-scheduled trip, but critics of the fledgling health insurance exchange pounced.
The conservative group Watchdog.org put out a press release Thursday, condemning her absence while "thousands of frustrated Minnesotans were notified about glitches and errors in their applications on the state insurance exchange."
Asked about the trip, the governor said Todd-Malmlov reports to the MNsure board, not the governor, so he has little control over her vacation plans.
"I know that the executive director worked extraordinarily hard for months now, probably all of last year and my understanding was this was a long-planned vacation where financial commitments were made," Dayton said. "I don't know enough of the details, but it was obviously a critical time for MNsure and it is ultimately her responsibility."
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, blasted what he saw as Dayton's efforts to distance himself from MNsure.
"Governor Dayton is ObamaCare and MNsure's biggest advocate," Daudt said in a statement. "It was Governor Dayton's signature that brought ObamaCare to Minnesota. While Governor Dayton is defending MNsure's Executive Director taking a tropical vacation amid MNsure's botched launch, hardworking Minnesotans have been out in the cold, uncertain if they actually have health coverage for their families."
MNsure's woes have continued into December, as some applicants still struggle to navigate system that was supposed to make shopping for health insurance easier and more affordable. But tens of thousands of Minnesotans now have health insurance through the online marketplace and the state expects thousands more to sign up between now and Dec. 23, the deadline to lock in health coverage for January.
"We're past the point where MNsure's problems are acceptable," Dayton said. "People who are calling should get prompt, efficient service...Fix the glitches."
MNsure spokeswoman Jenni Bowring-McDonough said Todd-Malmlov remained in contact with staff and "engaged on a daily basis with MNsure" throughout her vacation.
A similarly-timed tropical vacation cost the executive director of Maryland's health insurance exchange her job. Rebecca Pearce resigned last week amid criticism of job performance after she returned from a week-long Caribbean vacation.
Worries about Minnesota's new online health insurance marketplace are keeping Gov. Mark Dayton awake at night.
The state has just three more weeks to ensure the new MNsure site is ready for the Jan. 1 deadline to begin connecting thousands of uninsured and under-insured Minnesotans to health care coverage.
As many as one out of every five Minnesotans may eventually buy health insurance through MNsure, which is supposed to make shopping for health insurance cheaper and easier. But in the two and a half months since the site launched, it has been plagued by glitches, crashes and long waits for customer service.
“It’s, in my mind, past the point where these kind of snags should have been resolved," Dayton told reporters Wednesday, not long after he told a crowd at the Minnesota Association of Counties that MNsure is the one issue that keeps him awake at night.
"I’m mindful of how complicated the project is, and that we’re doing better than the federal government," Dayton said. But "we're three weeks away. I am concerned."
Dayton said he has "expressed my sense of urgency" to MNsure officials.
MNsure officials say they're doing their best to ensure the governor, and anyone else shopping for health insurance, rests easy. Although MNsure board chairman Brian Beutner says he's spent plenty of sleepless nights himself.
"It keeps me up at night as well, and I know it does the MNsure team, because I'm getting and emails and phone calls from them at midnight because they're literally working around the the clock."
About 25,000 people have enrolled in MNsure so far, including another 3,000 who signed up last week, he said. Buetner said the main focus now is on the 40,000 people who have set up profiles on MNsure, but have not yet picked out a plan or paid their first premium. The first plans go active on Jan. 1, but the open enrollment period runs through the end of March.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison is among a group of Senate and House Democrats teaming with the White House on a campaign to tout benefits of the Affordable Care Act.
The White House and Democratic allies will highlight a potential benefit of President Obama's health care law each day, aiming to remind voters of elements that Democrats say would disappear if Republican repeal efforts are successful.
The Obama administration is hoping the strategy will help shift public opinion after the law's rocky rollout.
Though a majority of Democratic and independent voters don’t support Republican efforts to repeal or defund the law, national polls show the electorate isn’t happy with the Affordable Care Act’s problems.
Millions of Americans, including an estimated 140,000 Minnesotans, have received cancellation notices from their health insurance companies, violating a key promise from the president that if “you like your plan you can keep it.”
Democrats acknowledge the Affordable Care Act isn’t perfect. During an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Ellison predicted that people will turn their attention to the law's benefits as the healthcare.gov website's troubles diminish.
“I’m working to make sure Minnesotans and working families around the country have the facts about health care reform,” Ellison said in a statement. “Now individuals and families will have free preventive care, no more lifetime cost limits, and an end to the days when insurance companies could take away your health care when you got sick.”
The messaging will continue until December 23, the deadline for people to enroll for January coverage.
Thus far, Republicans have mocked the effort, saying they’re ready to train the spotlight on the law’s shortcomings. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of U.S. House Republicans, said the “strike team” that Ellison belongs to is “Congress’ liberal all-star team.”
“We look forward to talking about the law even more than Democrats do,” said Matt Gorman, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
A slight majority of Minnesota voters expressed disapproval of President Obama’s health care law, known as Obamacare, according to a poll commissioned by the conservative Minnesota Jobs Coalition.
The partly automated telephone poll of 400 likely voters, conducted this week by the Tarrance Group, found that 51 percent disapprove of the law, compared to 43 percent who approve. Strong opposition stood at 43 percent, compared to strong support at 29 percent.
The poll, coming in the midst of a very shaky rollout for the new health care law, reflected strong partisan differences. But, tellingly, independents broke against the law 2 to 1, the poll found.
The poll did not measure how many of those who said they dislike the law did so because of problems with the government Web site or because they would like to see its provisions go farther.
The same poll found diminished support for Sen. Al Franken, with 45 percent saying he deserves reelection next year, compared to 43 percent who say it’s time to “give a new person a chance.”
A Public Policy Polling survey last month found Franken’s approval rating among registered voters in Minnesota is at 51/43, almost identical to his 51/42 approval rating in their polls last May.
Public Policy Polling is generally regarded as a Democratic firm; Tarrance is more commonly used by Republicans.
The Tarrance poll found voters more evenly divided on Gov. Mark Dayton. It found 45 percent saying he deserves reelection, versus 45 percent who would like to give someone else a chance.
The poll, which also found that 60 percent of Minnesota voters think the country is headed down the “wrong track,” included both automated calls to landlines and live calls to cell phones. It had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 5 percent.
While President Obama was tweaking the Affordable Care Act Thursday to extend expiring insurance policies for another year, U.S. Rep. John Kline was holding a hearing in his Education and Workforce Committee to explore another potential pitfall of the law.
In a new challenge to the health care overhaul, the Minnesota Republican has been highlighting the financial burden that it could impose on school districts and colleges that have to comply with the federal mandate to provide coverage for their employees.
Though the mandate has been pushed back a year, educators and school district officials from around the nation warned of the unintended budget consequences of covering part-time and semi-part workers such as teaching aides, adjunct instructors, cooks, bus drivers and others who work more than 30 hours a week.
A recent analysis of Minnesota Education Department data by the conservative-leaning Watchdog Minnesota found that 22,800 non-licensed school employees work between 30 and 39 hours a week, making them eligible for required benefits under the new health law.
State education officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Critics of the law warn that the 30-hour threshold will force schools, just like other employers, to limit hours, cut jobs, or incur greater costs.
While some educators have asked that the coverage threshold be raised to 40 hours, Democrats on the committee argued that the change would hurt part-time workers who will otherwise be insured.
Kline argues that the law’s employer mandate could hurt the educational system at all levels. “Americans continue to express their concerns about Obamacare and the troubling impact it is having on their lives,” Kline said in the lead-up to the hearing. “Our nation’s schools are not immune to the consequences of this law.”