With just four days to get the MNsure website up to snuff and help confused consumers find their way to a health plan, the new leader of the state's health insurance exchange said Friday he's encouraged by "steady progress," but that the work is far from over.

"The vast majority of people who come into our system are able to pass through much more smoothly," MNsure CEO Scott Leitz said. "That's not to say everything is solved here."

Consumers have until Tuesday at midnight to sign up for coverage that begins Jan. 1. Open enrollment continues through March 31 before consumers without insurance face a penalty under the federal health law.

Leitz and an IBM representative updated Gov. Mark Dayton on Friday on the effort to resolve problems, and said the vendors are "aggressively addressing issues."

Wait times at the MNsure call center were 57 minutes as of 1:30 p.m. on Friday, "still longer than they should be," Leitz said, but trending downward.

State workers and an infusion of as many as 100 workers from IBM are "attacking the software side to the strongest extent that we can."

'I think I have insurance'

Consumers in situations such as Steve Briggs finds himself are among the biggest concerns. Briggs, 58, retired 16 months ago and was so optimistic about finding a better plan through the MNsure marketplace that he canceled his COBRA plan a few months early. At the time, he didn't think it was such a gamble.

"I'm a retired actuary," said Briggs, of Eagan, who qualifies for tax credits. "I don't want to take that kind of risk."

He filled out an application on MNsure on Nov. 1 and easily used his Visa card to buy a dental plan.

But the medical insurance plan he selected to cover him and his wife was hung up in "pending" mode for nearly two months.

He finally received word on Monday that his application has been approved.

But now, every time he goes to the page to make a payment, he bounces back to his dental payment.

"I think I have insurance," Briggs said, "but I really don't know."

Focus on enrollments

Leitz and insurance leaders say they are focused on pushing people currently hung up in the enrollment process through, and much of it by hand. The goal, Leitz said, is to make sure everyone who wants coverage on Jan. 1 will have it.

"We don't think [manual processes] will be sustainable in the long run, nor do we want them to be there in the long run," said Leitz, who took the helm less than two weeks ago after former executive director April Todd-Malmlov resigned. "We're trying to keep our eye on the prize in the short run."

MNsure plans to release its latest enrollment figures Monday as the board of directors gathers a final time before Tuesday's deadline.

At last count in mid-December, nearly 39,000 consumers had found a health plan using the MNsure website.

Almost 12,000 had purchased a private plan and the rest qualified for a public program, such as Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare.

While IT workers focus on smoothing out the website, Twin Cities insurers are taking steps to handle an expected crush of traffic in the coming days.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota is routing outbound calls from its Eagan headquarters through different area codes to make sure its phone system can handle the incoming traffic.

More hands on deck

PreferredOne budgeted to increase staff 15 percent to handle the expected surge, and has added 17 people dedicated to handling questions about individual and family plans.

"Right now we're trying to make sure we get those insurance cards out within a few days," said PreferredOne spokesman Steve Peterson.

Dannette Coleman, Medica's vice president and general manager for individual business, said issues remain but MNsure and the various health plans are working together.

"Every day we are making progress," she said, "even if it's coming up with workarounds to make sure things can move forward for these folks who have made efforts to be covered."

As for Briggs, he remains optimistic, even though he has been put through the paces in the past two months: He got knocked off the call center help line after waiting on hold for exactly an hour; he turned to two separate "assisters" in Dakota County who couldn't help; and he has logged onto MNsure at least a dozen times.

"I actually believe in this process," he said. "I just don't think it's working very well.