The health insurance shopping season got off to a rough start Tuesday with technical difficulties at the MNsure website, complaints over long waits at the health exchange call center and a claim from DFL Gov. Mark Dayton that MNsure had been targeted by robocallers trying to tie up phone lines.

The troubles came on a day when MNsure hoped to dismiss any lingering doubts about an IT system that outraged many consumers during its balky launch in 2013.

With health insurance premiums jumping by more than 50 percent on average next year, MNsure is the only source in Minnesota for federal tax credits that could blunt the impact of rate spikes. State officials told shoppers to buy early, because caps on enrollment in most health plans mean that most insurance options could disappear altogether.

Many MNsure users successfully enrolled in coverage, but others complained of error messages, locked accounts and uncertainty about whether they’d successfully enrolled in a plan. By late morning, a key section of the MNsure website was down for about 30 minutes, along with portions of websites at nearly 70 other state agencies.

The MNsure call center opened at 8 a.m., and shoppers were complaining within a few hours about long wait times. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton told reporters that the state’s IT division found the waits were being ballooned by automated call systems.

“Somebody’s trying to jam the call center, and making robocalls to try to snafu the thing — which is deplorable,” Dayton said. “They’ve identified that culprit, and are acting … to exclude them from the system.”

Tuesday afternoon, state officials said they were still investigating what went wrong with the website, which they insisted was not a crash, did not indicate a security problem and was not caused by a traffic surge.

“During [the outage], the MNsure main page was not available, but a redirect was put in place to ensure the application and enrollment process remained available,” IT officials said Tuesday night. “The MNsure main page, and all impacted websites, are currently up and running again.”

For shoppers like Jane Friedmann, 56, of Minneapolis, the struggles amount to yet another frustrating chapter in the MNsure story.

“How many years is it going to take before MNsure has a website that works?” Friedmann asked.

Buying early

Tuesday was the start of open enrollment in the state’s individual market, where about 250,000 Minnesotans buy health insurance. Those shoppers have the option of buying through MNsure, a government-run health exchange website that Minnesota launched in late 2013 to implement the federal Affordable Care Act.

Three years ago, MNsure’s rocky rollout took weeks to surface. It culminated in December with two-hour waits at the call center and an IT search-and-rescue mission to find thousands of applications lost in an IT black hole.

This year, troubles appeared on the opening day of open enrollment because enrollment caps designed to limit financial losses for health insurers also created a strong incentives for shoppers to buy early. The caps mean that most health plan options could sell out, and tight limits on doctor and hospital networks mean that those who don’t get their preferred health plan might not see their doctors at in-network rates.

MNsure officials said Tuesday the call center handled 13,732 calls by 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday. The tally appeared to smash previous records, since MNsure board materials suggest call volumes for people seeking Jan. 1 coverage never exceeded 5,000 during either of the last two open enrollment periods.

For weeks leading up to Tuesday’s open enrollment launch, Republicans who have been critical of MNsure openly questioned whether the website could handle Tuesday’s expected surge. Insurance industry sources quietly raised questions as well, but MNsure Chief Executive Allison O’Toole confidently declared last week that the website was ready, and the call center would be fully staffed.

“I think we are ready,” O’Toole said on Tuesday, when asked about those assurances. She said the call center was working to get back on track after dealing with some “outside influences.”

“Thousands of Minnesotans have been on our site, creating accounts, actively enrolling,” she said, noting that more than 3,000 people had done so by midday. “We have not hit the caps yet, so people still have time. They still have choices.”

Scott Peterson, the chief business technology officer with MN.IT, the division of state government for information technology services did not offer specifics about the alleged robocalling, but said IT officials noticed a suspicious surge of calls in the hours before the call center opened that continued into morning operations.

“We just see an inconsistent number of calls from certain numbers,” he said. “We’re just saying it’s consistent with robocalling.”

Before the website outage and robocall allegations, MNsure consumers said the website experience was a mixed bag. Some found coverage, while others hit error messages and confusion.

“Right at the moment, I would give it a grade F,” said Mary Enger, 59, who lives near Dawson in western Minnesota. “I’m extremely frustrated.”

HealthPartners sees surge

Demand also caused problems early Tuesday with the website for HealthPartners, a large health insurer based in Bloomington, as potential subscribers said they couldn’t enroll in plans. That was true for Kathy Derong, 61, of Vadnais Heights, who turned instead to MNsure.

“It was surprisingly smooth, until the end,” Derong said of the exchange.

The individual market in Minnesota and across the country has been struggling with changes introduced by the federal Affordable Care Act. The health law starting in 2014 prevented health insurers from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions, and carriers have struggled to make the business profitable ever since.

Several have dropped out of state markets entirely, and Minnesota regulators say the market here was on the brink of collapse this summer. To maintain competition, regulators let four of five health plans in the market cap their enrollment for 2017.

Caps motivated Char Loving of Golden Valley to try shopping early on Tuesday. She said she spent more than three hours trying to buy coverage through the MNsure website on Tuesday morning, but couldn’t get past error messages and couldn’t get call center help.

The experience has been frustrating, Loving said via e-mail, not just because of caps but also “the crazy costs we are all forced to pay right now.”


Twitter: @chrissnowbeck