MNsure shows growing pains, fewer than two weeks to launch

After some high-profile gaffes with a data breach and marketing plan, the new state-run health exchange vows to be ready on Oct. 1.


MNsure executive director April Todd-Malmlov, who sought to reassure board members at Friday's meeting.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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The organization that is supposed to usher Minnesotans into a new era of health care, helping them navigate choices in quality and affordability as easily as they choose airfares and hotels, instead is struggling to recover from a series of embarrassing blunders and mistakes.

Botched grants, an unnerving data security breach involving more than 1,000 Social Security numbers, and ridicule from some quarters over a multimillion dollar advertising campaign have left officials for MNsure scrambling to restore public confidence less than two weeks before a closely watched launch of the only state-run health exchange in the Midwest.

Officials say that given the tight time constraints of an Oct. 1 start date, they are hoping to “fail fast” and “fix it fast.”

Brian Beutner, head of the MNsure board, said that despite missteps, the agency will be ready to launch the MNsure exchange on time, with backup plans in place.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of start-ups and this is how it goes,” Beutner said. “You throw it out, see what works. If it’s not working, fix it. That’s what we’re seeing now.”

But some legislators say the problems go deeper. In a letter to Gov. Mark Dayton earlier this week, Reps. Greg Davids, R-Preston, and Peggy Scott, R-Andover, said “the problems are of MNsure’s own making.” In the letter, they noted that MNsure had obtained “at least 21 whole or partial exemptions from the normal rules governing state agencies, including procurement and financial oversight. This affords it unprecedented latitude to set its own policies, but it appears MNsure may be incapable of completing the job.”

MNsure is no ordinary start-up. The new state-run exchange already has received more than $140 million. Ultimately, one out of every five Minnesotans -- about $1.3 million -- will rely on the system for one of the most important choices they face as consumers.

At a hastily convened meeting Friday, the MNsure board tried to determine whether the recent flubs were growing pains or signs of deeper problems within the system.

April Todd-Malmlov, MNsure director, sought to reassure board members, noting that the staff member who inadvertently released the Social Security numbers is no longer with the agency.

She also acknowledged that an internal review showed that the agency didn’t even have to collect the Social Security numbers.

By meeting’s end, some board members were suggesting that the best course might be to maintain the Oct. 1 launch date but de-emphasize it a bit.

Said board member Thompson Aderinkomi: “There’s nothing wrong, actually, in asking people not to sign up right away.” And board member Tom Forsythe, vice president of global communications for General Mills, said he would encourage Minnesotans “to not call on Oct. 1” as a way to manage the initial load.

The health insurance mandate that includes penalties for those who fail to obtain insurance doesn’t kick in until March 31.

Dayton, who has been a strong supporter of the federal health reform, said that he is watchful of the program and wants it to succeed and that stumbles are to be expected.

“There are people out there who just want to destroy the health exchanges,” Dayton said, “who want to destroy the Affordable Care Act and leave this country with no health system at all and turn it back over to the insurance companies and do whatever they want to do.”

MNsure, he said, “is starting a huge business from Day One in the public spotlight. … I will be the first to criticize something I think is wrong, but I don’t want to see the whole program destroyed.”

The Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare, was signed into U.S. law in March 2010, but it has been dogged by controversy and lawsuits that have delayed portions of it.

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