After months of technology repairs and some cautious warnings last week, MNsure officials said Friday that the health exchange website is in good shape for the start of open enrollment on Saturday.

Earlier this month, state officials warned that fixes to the MNsure system would continue up until the open enrollment launch, and cautioned that some work might not get done by the deadline.

But Scott Leitz, the MNsure chief executive, said Friday that the last-minute repairs are working well, and the state has no plans to divert shoppers from the website to paper applications or the health exchange call center.

Shoppers who were frustrated last year with MNsure should give the exchange another try, he said, because it’s the only place people can receive federal tax credits that discount premium costs.

“We’re really pleased with the progress that was made over the last week in clearing up the last remaining issues that were there,” Leitz said during a news conference Friday at MNsure’s headquarters in St. Paul. “We’re confident the improvements we have made will ensure Minnesotans have a smooth enrollment experience.”

Minnesota launched the health insurance exchange last year to implement the federal Affordable Care Act, and MNsure officials have stressed their efforts to prevent a repeat of last year’s troubles.

The website is much more stable than it was last year, Leitz said on Friday, adding that website pages load up to five times faster than in the past. Whereas people frustrated last year by the website had to wait hours for help on the phone, the MNsure call center will have 10 times the staff this year than it did initially in 2013, Leitz said.

There will be a better online directory, he said, that guides people to more than 1,000 insurance agents and “navigators” who can help people use the system.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that this year’s open enrollment period will go well for consumers,” Leitz said. “We think our experience will be greatly improved over what it was last year.”

Last year, MNsure overpromised what it could do for consumers, said Julie Brunner, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Health Plans, a trade group for insurers.

Not everything will be perfect, Brunner added during a Friday forum on MNsure at the University of Minnesota.

“One of the shortcomings in our IT system here is that anybody who bought through MNsure last year has to go back in and start over essentially,” Brunner said. “But because the website, I think, is going to work better, it may not be as challenging as that might sound.”

Agents wary

People who don’t get health insurance as part of employer groups can buy policies through MNsure that are sold by private insurance companies. Those insurers want MNsure to do better this time, because a balky website is more likely to deter healthy consumers — the very people that MNsure needs for a balanced risk pool, said Scott Keefer, vice president of public affairs and communications at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.

“The consumer experience has improved,” Keefer said Friday. “We hope that with additions to the call center … that means people are going to have an easier experience.”

Despite the reassuring words, insurance agents said they have questions about how things will work on Saturday. Due in part to frustrations with the system last year, many agents have opted not to recertify with MNsure, said Alycia Riedl, chair of the board at the Minnesota Association of Health Underwriters, a trade group for insurance agents.

People don’t have to use MNsure to buy individual insurance policies, Riedl noted, adding: “The reality is, it’s a lot easier — even as a consumer, but especially as an agent — to go directly to an insurance carrier.”

About 50,000 people have enrolled in commercial health insurance policies thus far through MNsure. Currently, balancing the exchange’s budget would involve doubling commercial enrollment by the end of 2015.

Renewal a ‘challenge’

Considering the challenges facing MNsure, hitting the 100,000 mark in the near-term could be a tall order, said health care consultant Joel Ario during the Friday forum at the U.

Ario previously was the Obama administration’s lead official for developing health exchanges, and he said marketplaces across the country face a double challenge this fall of renewing coverage for those already covered while attracting new customers. It’s particularly tough in Minnesota, Ario said, because Preferred­One — the largest carrier on the exchange in 2014 — won’t be selling policies on MNsure next year. So, the path of least resistance will take those customers off the exchange.

“I think we’ll see better Web pages as we go along with open enrollment — not just here, but nationally,” Ario said.

More than 300,000 people have used MNsure to enroll in the state’s Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare programs. Those beneficiaries are being asked to skip open enrollment on Saturday, because the state is still testing an automatic renewal system. At the end of the month, the state plans to send notices to people in the public insurance programs about next steps.

“We’ll be clear on the website — if you’re a public program enrollee, don’t try and create a new application,” state Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said in an interview.


Twitter: @chrissnowbeck