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Continued: MNsure shows growing pains, fewer than two weeks to launch

Just last week, the U.S. House voted for the 42nd time to defund it — a vote that is expected to fail again in the Senate. The Minnesota Legislature, which was in GOP hands when the law was first passed, did not give the go-ahead to form a state exchange until this March, when DFLers were in control.

Much of the initial start-up work was accomplished before then only because of an executive order Dayton had issued earlier that Republicans were powerless to block.

Some successes

The agency has had some successes along the way. MNsure announced this month that it will offer the lowest average rates in the country, compared with plans offered on nearly a dozen other exchanges, and that it will have some plans with premiums as low as $91 per month.

Yet there also have been high-profile gaffes and missteps that have sent MNsure staffers scrambling like a NASCAR pit crew on damage control.

When lawmakers pointed out that the $4 million in community outreach grants announced by MNsure earlier this month had largely shut out groups with established outreach into minority communities and those who work with people with mental health issues, the agency pivoted quickly to free $750,000 from its budget to expand the grant program.

Paul Bunyan’s bearded face already beams out from billboards, bus ads and television commercials around the state, urging Minnesotans to log onto MNsure to get health insurance.

But not everyone has been charmed by the marketing theme — including some officials in the iconic statue’s hometown of Bemidji — and MNsure’s attempts to keep its marketing strategy secret were soundly slapped down by the state.

When a MNsure staffer mistakenly sent an insurance agent a file that included the Social Security numbers of some 1,600 other brokers, the agency drew criticism from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., and the scrutiny of the state's legislative auditor, who has started his own investigation.

On Tuesday, MNsure officials will face a fresh grilling at an emergency meeting of the Legislative Oversight Committee, called after the latest problems.

MNsure’s data breach hit a particularly sour note with Rep. Scott. After listening to Todd-Malmlov and others at Friday’s meeting, Scott proclaimed herself dissatisfied. The meeting, she said, “only raised more questions about MNsure’s lack of data security procedures. I’m anxiously awaiting the legislative auditor’s investigative report on this incident.”

She and other Republican legislators are urging the state to delay the MNsure launch until “they have these quirks worked out.” The whole thing, she said, “has been rushed since the beginning and when stuff is rushed, the end product — especially something this complex — is not good.”

Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said he was reassured by MNsure’s fast fix to his criticism of the agency’s lack of outreach into minority communities. He said making inroads in neighborhoods where health problems are common and good insurance coverage is scarce would take more than a Paul Bunyan billboard or a pamphlet in a neighborhood clinic.

“I really applaud them for kind of sitting there and taking their medicine, and turning around and doing something about it,” Hayden said. “I’m much more hopeful, moving forward, about MNsure and its access to communities of color.”

Under the microscope

MNsure’s repair work is happening under intense scrutiny. Nationwide, the exchanges will be a key vehicle for implementing the most sweeping elements of the federal health law, which remain unpopular with many Republicans.

In little more than six months, Americans will, for the first time, be required by law to carry health insurance.

Exchanges, whether run by the states or Washington, will be where the uninsured, the underinsured and small businesses can shop for coverage. Many moderate-income earners will be able to use the exchanges to access federal tax credits that lower their out-of-pocket expenses.

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