With the clock ticking on MNsure's first major deadline, officials at the state's new insurance exchange on Monday sought both to allay consumers' concerns and set realistic expectations.

MNsure officials urged consumers to work directly with insurance companies if they are concerned about meeting Tuesday's midnight deadline for coverage on Jan. 1, even as the agency continues to attack persistent technical issues.

The call center still is experiencing wait times of an hour or more and about 20,000 people are caught in a "pending" status.

Tuesday's deadline applies to those who need coverage on the first day of the new year. But open enrollment continues until March 31, officials stressed, which is the true "drop dead" deadline.

Minnesotans who haven't signed up for a plan by then will have to wait until fall for another opportunity to shop for insurance coverage, and could face fines of $95 or 1 percent of household income.

Those who have made serious efforts for coverage on Jan. 1 can feel confident that insurance carriers and even many doctors and pharmacists are working to make sure medical needs are covered, officials stressed.

The state is working to move several thousand people through the system who have been hung up by technical issues, usually by calling them on the phone and completing the enrollment process by hand or otherwise coaching them through the process.

Progress, but all is not rosy

Even with such efforts, MNsure interim CEO Scott Leitz acknowledged the enormous challenges of the task.

"Whether we're going to be able at the end of the day to reach every single person who is trying to get through the system, I think that bar's going to be awfully high to reach," he said, "but we're going to continue those efforts."

Despite continuing problems, MNsure reported that enrollment through the site has grown by more than a third in the past two weeks.

More than 53,000 Minnesotans have bought coverage as of last Friday, with the biggest gains coming from those buying private health plans on the individual market. By Friday, 19,420 had signed up for individual or family plans; 21,051 had been enrolled in Medical Assistance; and 12,708 were getting coverage through MinnesotaCare.

The state's most recent goals called for 135,000 people enrolled in public and private plans by the end of the open enrollment period in March, with about 70,000 coming from those buying private plans.

Leitz told the MNsure board that despite the website's progress, challenges remain. He said he plans to have a more-complete assessment of the system at the board's next meeting in early January.

"It's fair to say there's work to be done with IBM and the other vendors across the system from end to end," he said. "While coverage growth is going up, not everyone is ­having a perfect experience yet."

Call center wait times are improving, but the average time continues to approach an hour, with many consumers waiting much longer. And MNsure took the unusual step of encouraging people to buy directly through insurance carriers rather than clogging up the MNsure website and help line.

Those who qualify for tax credits can reapply in January or February.

Board member Tom Forsythe, a vice president at General Mills, has been focused on assessing the needs of the call center. He said the staff is dealing with issues "not normal for a call center," because the core issues are related to software and other technical problems.

But in hindsight, Forsythe said he regretted not ramping up staff sooner.

"We should have put even more assets into the call center six weeks ago, five weeks ago," he said.

Linda Quinn has found her experience with the call center exasperating, after her original application from Nov. 16 ran into a technical glitch.

A MNsure representative called to tell her he had deleted her application and that she needed to start over. She later received a letter in the mail saying her application was "pending" and that she needed to provide additional information, but the letter didn't specify what kind of information.

Kicked off after 2 hours

She has taken time off work, spent hours on hold to the call center, and on Monday was kicked off after more than two hours.

"What is due diligence to have insurance?" Quinn asked Monday. "I still don't have insurance."

Officials sent out a list of tips on Monday to try to calm the nerves of people such as Quinn who are caught in limbo — and to divert traffic from an already overwhelmed call center staff. A new pop-up screen on the website provides a more prominent how-to section titled, "Before you apply and enroll."

The message from MNsure: If you've paid, you are covered — even if you don't have an insurance card. If you're approved for a government plan under MinnesotaCare or Medical Assistance, you're covered. And, finally, seek out other options — work with a community-based navigator or independent insurance broker, or contact the insurance companies directly.

More than 100 workers from IBM/Curam have been onsite for the past two weeks, trying to work through issues with its software, which is responsible for handling the application process and verifying whether people qualify for federal tax credit or government programs, such as MinnesotaCare and Medical Assistance.

Steve Korngable of Eagan may have been a beneficiary of the extra boost to the IT staff, which is coming at no added expense to taxpayers, state officials have said.

Korngable said he finally got enrolled on Sunday, after days of frustrations. Korn­gable said he had to re-enter application data three times, and when he tried to complete the transaction he got an error message saying the site couldn't process his payment.

He said the experience has been "a complete disaster." A call center operator finally was able to complete the process for him.

"I called them yesterday, the second they opened," Korn­gable, 58, said on Monday. "I was told to uncheck a box you were supposed to check. Unbelievable."