April Todd-Malmlov, executive director of MNsure.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Tevlin: MNsure exec's trip to tropics becomes a sore topic

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • December 14, 2013 - 10:24 PM

In September, a Central American country launched a new branding slogan: “Essential Costa Rica.”

The new pitch, created to draw tourists and investors, was criticized inside the country as vague and meaningless.

But it seems to have resonated with one high-ranking public official in Minnesota: MNsure Director April Todd-Malmlov, who bolted the frigid cold for a vacation around Thanksgiving to the tropical paradise while the health care exchange sputtered and lurched like a 1983 Buick on a subzero morning.

While the MNsure machine is working better than the federal exchange, it has faltered enough that Gov. Mark Dayton admitted on Wednesday that the problems keep him up at night.

Just think about the thousands of Minnesotans stymied by the system, UNsure whether they will have health coverage come Jan. 1. They probably don’t sleep very well either, and it’s not because they are out singing Jimmy Buffett songs.

Opponents of the new health care act pounced, predictably, accusing Todd-Malmlov of abdicating her duties while Rome smoldered.

MNsure responded that the vacation was approved by the board and that Dayton was aware she was gone. The trip had been booked and paid for far in advance, and Todd-Malmlov was in daily contact with her colleagues.

Here’s my take:

I doubt Todd-Malmlov’s vacation had any impact on whether MNsure was working or not. It’s not like she was the one crawling under tables to make sure the doodads were plugged in. Sometimes the most expendable person in the room is the one at the top.

Todd-Malmlov had planned the trip well in advance and likely left business in the hands of someone she trusts. Costa Rica is developed and sophisticated (I’ve made calls from the foot of a volcano there), so I don’t doubt she was connected while away. As someone who unplugs, it sounds like a lousy vacation.

The fact the board and governor apparently approved the vacation a month after launch tells me that they had obstructed vision and a wildly optimistic, and unrealistic, view of how MNsure would work.

I religiously guard people’s right to a vacation (a winter vacation is essential, in my world). But when the organization you run is under turmoil and your very existence is at the heart of a heated political debate, you don’t run off to Margaritaville.

I put this as much on the board, and Gov. Dayton, as Todd-Malmlov. Regardless of how tirelessly MNsure employees worked the past year, the board and governor should have made it clear: No vacations between the rollout in October and the deadline in January, or until the problems are fixed. Period.

Here at the newspaper, political reporters can’t take off before an election. Vacations were axed during the National Republican Convention, just in case. Pretty simple.

From the comments section on stories about the trip, it seems the issue is inflamed by uniquely American idiosyncrasies: The emotional battle over health care and an unusual, and I think unhealthy, attitude toward vacations.

Americans take the fewest vacation days of almost any country in the world, according to a study by Expedia. We get an average of 14 days per year (the global average is 20), but we take only 10 of those days, collectively leaving more than 500 million days unused. That’s crazy. Nobody dies wishing they’d have put in one more shift at the plant.

So part of the anger directed at Todd-Malmlov is jealousy. Had she gone to Iowa, would anybody care?

That said, for an agency that has spent loads of money on advertising, the lack of awareness of the potential public relations fallout is stunning.

Should it cost anyone a job? Of course not.

But if the problems increase or persist, someone has to be responsible. This should be about performance, not appearance.

I have some unsolicited advice to all those involved in the vacation decision: Costa Rica’s health care system is universal, and rated among the top 20 in the world. We should ask how they do it.

Also, I’ve got a trip booked for this spring, and I bought something called “trip cancellation insurance” in case something important comes up.

Finally, I know Costa Rica. March is a wonderful time to go white-water rafting on the Reventazon River. • 612-673-1702

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