Minnesota legislators blasted the troubled MNsure website Thursday and railed against a lack of accountability over its continued woes.

In their first opportunity to question leaders of the insurance exchange since it opened for business, the 10 members of the bipartisan MNsure Legislative Oversight Committee grilled agency executives about decisions last year to downgrade the participation of the lead technology contractor, which came to light only in recent days.

Maximus Inc., a Reston, Va., data services firm that specializes in government projects, was initially awarded the job as general contractor under a $41 million federal grant that later grew to nearly $46 million. But that contract was amended last February, and MNsure took over management and responsibility for building its website and technical infrastructure, according to a document that Maximus provided to the committee.

Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, pointedly sought to determine who "OK'd" the decision to move the work in house.

"Where does the buck stop?" he asked. "We have a board who doesn't have answers."

MNsure board Chairman Brian Beutner and interim CEO Scott Leitz deflected responsibility, saying decisions about Maximus were made before each came aboard.

Said Beutner: The "direct answer to that question is, I do not know. You're talking to the wrong people. … The hand we've been dealt is what we're trying to improve going forward."

While Maximus no longer was considered the project manager, it maintained "a supporting role" to help the state build an online insurance marketplace expected to eventually serve up to 1 million Minnesotans.

In May, the Maximus on-site staff was reduced to a single project manager. By late November, two months after MNsure had launched its glitch-filled website, Maximus was in contact only remotely.

Beutner said 95 percent of MNsure's website was built before the board held its first meeting in May, and the board wasn't given full authority until the end of August. Leitz took the job as interim CEO just three weeks ago, following the resignation of former chief April Todd-Malmlov.

'Thorough forensic analysis'

Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles, who launched a review into the agency this week, pledged a "thorough forensic analysis" that will address legislators' concerns about who decided what and when.

"We will find an answer to that," Nobles said. "And we will also find an answer to who was in charge after Maximus was taken out of that role."

Leslie Wolfe, a Maximus division president, has declined requests for interviews with the Star Tribune, saying she has not been given authority to do so by MNsure.

Minnesota is one of 15 states and the District of Columbia that decided to build its own health exchange, a new way for individuals and small businesses to shop for insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

The state has drawn about $155 million in federal grants to build a complex system, hire and train staff, and get the marketing message out. MNsure by law will have to be self-sufficient in 2015, funded largely by fees on premiums from insurance carriers.

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, led questioning from legislators worried that MNsure's funding mechanism could be challenged if technical problems and other issues keep people from using the website.

"Are you thinking of coming to the Legislature for some of those resources?" asked Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick and co-chair of the committee.

Beutner said it was not MNsure's intention to come to the Legislature to ask for additional funds.

Current enrollment is running about 85 percent of the low end of projections at this point, Leitz said, but enrollment is expected to spike before the open enrollment period ends March 31. That's when consumers will face fines if they don't have insurance.

MNsure this week brought in Optum, a health IT services unit of UnitedHealth Group, at no cost to taxpayers. But it also is preparing to hire a dozen more operators for its call center, beef up staff to handle more paper applications and will consider hiring Optum for additional work.

Those steps have budget implications, Benson said, noting that MNsure's forecasts suggest that it "loses money every year."

"This organization has been given unprecedented latitude," she said, "and it hasn't worked out very well."

Positive customer feedback

But not everyone is soured on the process. During the 3½-hour meeting, lawmakers heard stories from several consumers who had muscled through the process and were satisfied in the end.

Among them was Tessie Bundick, a self-employed artist. It took two community navigators to help get her through the site, but eventually she got a more comprehensive health plan at a better price. Today she's upbeat and optimistic.

"In a year, when all the bugs are worked out," she said, "I think people will be very happy with it."