State IT officials say they’re taking steps to prevent a repeat of the alleged “robocalling” that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton blamed for long waits at the MNsure call center during the start of last year’s open enrollment period.

Efforts to safeguard the phone system are just one part of planning for open enrollment, which MNsure is preparing for despite ongoing debate in the U.S. Senate to repeal and replace the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Allison O’Toole, the MNsure chief executive, said during a board meeting Wednesday in St. Paul that none of the Senate proposals put to a vote thus far would have blocked individual market shoppers from tapping tax credits through MNsure for 2018 coverage.

“We will be open for business this fall, offering plans, comparison shopping and tax credits for consumers,” O’Toole said. But she acknowledged uncertainty with the legislative effort, saying: “I don’t have a crystal ball.”

Minnesota launched the MNsure exchange in 2013 to implement the ACA. It’s an option for people who buy coverage in the individual market, which primarily serves people under age 65 who are self-employed or don’t get coverage from their employer.

The health law called for the creation of new online health insurance marketplaces like the MNsure exchange, which is how Minnesota consumers at certain income levels tap tax credits provided under the ACA.

When open enrollment for 2017 coverage started last year, the MNsure call center was overwhelmed resulting in very long waits for consumers seeking help. In December, the state’s MN.IT department said an investigation concluded automated call systems known as “robocalling” could have caused the problem, and sent the case to the FBI for review for potential criminal activity. A spokesman said the bureau does not typically confirm whether FBI initiated an active investigation.

As MN.IT officials told board members Wednesday about preparations for the upcoming open enrollment period, which is currently scheduled for Nov. 1, board member Peter Benner asked about steps to prevent a repeat of last year’s problem. Bill Pal-Freeman, a MN.IT official, didn’t offer specifics, but said: “We have actually been actively working about making sure we do have a good fallback plan in case we do have unplanned volumes.”

O’Toole added: “That’s squarely in our open enrollment preparations.”

Senate Republicans failed Tuesday and Wednesday in votes that would repeal the ACA, but there were reports of interest in a so-called “skinny” repeal that would eliminate mandates for individuals to have coverage and for many employers to offer it. Such a measure would “have a huge impact on the stability of the market,” O’Toole told MNsure board members.

Eagan-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota said in a statement Wednesday that if Senate Republicans eliminate the requirement for individuals to buy coverage, their legislation must include strong incentives for subscribers to buy coverage and keep it year-round.

“A system that allows people to purchase coverage only when they need it drives up costs for everyone,” Blue Cross said in its statement.

The federal government has called for shorter open enrollment periods this fall for people buying 2018 coverage. Whereas open enrollment for 2017 stretched 90 days, the federal government cut the period in half, allowing general sign-ups between Nov. 1 and Dec. 15.

MNsure has flexibility to run a longer open enrollment period, but final decisions haven’t been made. The possibility of a tighter open enrollment period was cited Wednesday in a report to the board that asked MNsure to provide better support to staff who help people enroll in coverage through MNsure, known as assisters.

“MNsure’s support and responsiveness ... does not meet the needs of assisters and ultimately the consumers that rely on them to assess and enroll in coverage,” according to a summary of the report presented Wednesday.

O’Toole said tools used by health insurance brokers and navigators have been improving over the last few years. She said some technology improvements are tough to promise, however, because the MNsure IT system is also used by the state Department of Human Services (DHS), which is pushing for improvements that would help people in public health insurance programs.

While MNsure lets people in the individual market buy private health plans, it’s also a system for DHS to handle enrollment and eligibility for the Medicaid and MinnesotaCare programs.

The MNsure board on Wednesday approved its budget for the fiscal year that started July 1. The exchange projects about $45 million in annual revenue and $42 million in expenses.

A 3.5 percent tax on the value of private insurance policies sold through MNsure is expected to generate about $22.5 million in revenue during the fiscal year. The exchange expects to spend about $22 million on customer service.

The board on Wednesday also approved a 0.6 percent raise for O’Toole that takes her annual salary to $150,816.


Twitter: @chrissnowbeck