UnitedHealth Group Inc.’s data services subsidiary Optum, which came to the rescue of the federal health insurance exchange in November, is now stepping in to help resolve continuing problems with MNsure.

About 15 Optum staffers arrived Wednesday morning at MNsure, the state’s insurance exchange, for a two-day assessment of the agency’s website and call center operations. Their goal: to help officials pinpoint how and why some consumers are getting hung up in the system, which is expected to eventually help more than 1 million Minnesotans choose and pay for health coverage.

“We are pleased to have the opportunity to assist the state of Minnesota in a brief, initial assessment of the issues facing MNsure,” Optum spokesman Brian Kane said.

Optum is not charging the state for the review, but might be hired for additional work, officials said. The Eden Prairie-based company also has worked with the Maryland exchange, whose system is similar to Minnesota’s and is using the same set of vendors.

Optum is expected to deliver its findings next week.

Results can’t come soon enough, as officials rush to get the website more fully functional for an expected spike at the end of this year’s open enrollment period, which is March 31. But several deadlines before then also will create pressure for MNsure.

Consumers have until the end of business this Friday to have a payment either to MNsure or the health insurer for retroactive coverage that began Jan. 1. Those who want coverage beginning in February face a Jan. 15 deadline to use the website to enroll in a plan and pay the premium.

Scott Leitz, MNsure interim CEO, told members of the board of directors that he also will address continuing problems with the system by hiring more call center operators and adding resources so the state can accept more paper applications for those who can’t get through the online site.

MNsure’s problem-plagued launch has come under increasing scrutiny in recent weeks. In a letter to IBM’s chief executive, Gov. Mark Dayton demanded additional staff to fix an essential component of the system. This week, Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles launched a broad examination of MNsure that will cover the work of vendors, MNsure’s governance and oversight and use of federal grants.

Four companies have played key roles in building the system, with Reston, Va.-based Maximus Inc. originally hired as the lead contractor. But MNsure officials said Wednesday that some of the Maximus work was moved in-house in May. The decision happened before the board existed and before Leitz came on board, so details weren’t provided.

MNsure officials said the legislative auditor’s report should bring clarity to the reasons behind that move — and its consequences.

The state received nearly $46 million in federal grants to build the complex technological infrastructure. It has paid a little more than $25 million so far.

Enrollments growing

MNsure officials said more people are getting through the system, while acknowledging a certain percentage of people “just fail.” In updated figures, MNsure reported that nearly 72,000 people have enrolled in health plans as of Saturday. That compares with a little more than 53,000 as of Dec. 28.

MNsure plans to add a dozen workers to the call center staff by the end of the month. Wait times are edging down, but still average about 50 minutes.

Board member Tom Forsythe, a General Mills vice president, called the move to beef up the help desk “legitimate and appropriate,” even if it affects the budget.

“I think we should throw money at the call center,” Forsythe said. “We have a temporary problem — we have a 120-day problem, not a 365-day problem.”

The decision to focus on handling more paper applications was based on the realities of a pressing deadline, a still-glitchy website and the need to get people enrolled.

“We will not have the ideal system by March 31,” Leitz acknowledged.

As a contingency plan, it’s a short-term solution to ramp up staff to process enrollment forms by hand.

“We want people to use the system, because for most people it’s still the best way for people to get in and get coverage,” Leitz said. “We want to be fairly honest about it — there are going to be folks who can’t get through.”