While Minnesota’s new health insurance exchange was scrambling toward a crucial deadline, its director was on a tropical vacation.

MNsure Director April Todd-Malmlov took a two-week trip to Costa Rica around Thanksgiving, leaving behind a state health insurance exchange plagued by glitches and under daily fire from critics.

Those critics now question why Todd-Malmlov left the country at a time when computer crashes were preventing some Minnesotans from buying insurance through the exchange and call centers were so understaffed that wait times for help stretched an hour or more.

During her absence, continued glitches forced state and county officials to double-check up to 40,000 applications to determine whether people were incorrectly denied premium subsidies or coverage on public programs, such as Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare.

On Thursday, Gov. Mark Dayton defended Todd-Malmlov’s right to take a pre-scheduled vacation. He made no attempt to defend MNsure’s ongoing problems.

“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.”

The conservative group Watchdog.org blasted Todd-Malmlov in a statement Thursday, condemning her absence while “thousands of frustrated Minnesotans were notified about glitches and errors in their applications on the state insurance exchange.”

As of Nov. 30, more than 24,500 people had enrolled for health coverage through MNsure. Tens of thousands more are expected to enroll between now and the Dec. 23 deadline to enroll for coverage starting Jan. 1. That process has been hampered by computer crashes and slow service on a site that was supposed to make shopping for health insurance simpler and more affordable for uninsured and underinsured Minnesotans.

‘Fix the glitches’

MNsure’s woes have continued into December, with some applicants still struggling with long wait times even as the deadline edges closer.

“We’re past the point where MNsure’s problems are acceptable,” Dayton said Thursday. “People who are calling should get prompt, efficient service. … Fix the glitches.”

MNsure issued a terse statement about the director’s vacation: “April Todd-Malmlov was out of town for eight business days at the end of November. Members of the MNsure Board were aware of her absence. She was available via phone and e-mail and communicated with staff on a daily basis, providing leadership and direction as needed.”

Dayton said Todd-Malmlov reports to the MNsure board, not the governor, so he has little control over her vacation plans. Todd-Malmlov’s state pay as MNsure director for 2013 was listed at $113,000.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, blasted what he saw as Dayton’s efforts to distance himself from MNsure.

“It was Governor Dayton’s signature that brought Obamacare to Minnesota,” Daudt said in a statement, referring to the Affordable Care Act. “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.”

Last week, a similarly timed vacation cost the executive director of Maryland’s health insurance exchange her job. Rebecca Pearce resigned amid criticism of her performance after she returned from a weeklong Caribbean vacation.