Long waits to get anyone from MNsure on the phone Monday were partly the result of ice storms in Illinois that affected staffing at a vendor that was handling overflow calls.

MNsure spokesman Shane Delaney said Tuesday that the overflow vendor had 43 workers call in absent because of bad weather.

The shortage at the call center contributed to wait times on Monday that averaged 1 hour, the worst performance this year for MNsure, just as thousands raced to meet a deadline for January coverage.

MNsure’s explanation came after Republicans on Tuesday called for the exchange to offer a grace period for people who encountered long waits before the deadline.

“These delays, in combination with ongoing MNsure technology failures, likely discouraged or prevented Minnesotans from enrolling in coverage and avoiding hefty IRS penalties,” wrote Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, in a Tuesday letter to MNsure Chief Executive Allison O’Toole.

MNsure said in a statement that it is communicating with health insurers “to determine the most appropriate solution for Minnesotans who may have been impacted by yesterday’s rush.”

In a subsequent e-mail, Delaney said it’s too early to say whether some sort of grace period might be offered.

The outside vendor that helps MNsure field calls is based in Burnsville, Delaney said, but has operations in Rockford, Ill. That city was hit by storms on Monday.

Whereas MNsure had 154 agents answering more than 7,000 calls on Monday, Dec. 14, there were just 110 agents handling more than 10,000 calls on Monday.

“We had all available agents on the phone,” Delaney wrote. “Our overflow vendor had 43 agents call in absent [Monday] due to ice storms.”

Minnesota launched the MNsure exchange two years ago to implement the federal Affordable Care Act, which requires almost all Americans to have health insurance or pay a tax penalty.

MNsure is an option for the roughly 300,000 state residents who buy health insurance on their own, rather than receiving coverage from an employer or the government.

Long waits at the MNsure call center were the hallmark of MNsure’s troubled debut in 2013, when daily averages in at least one case hit the two-hour mark.

Back then, consumers who were stuck waiting on deadline day got the chance for a retroactive tax credit, Davids wrote, if they completed a special form or otherwise demonstrated an effort to enroll.

“MNsure should reinstate the retroactive tax credit and coverage policy for consumers who faced similar difficulties over the past weeks,” Davids wrote. “In addition to hourlong call center waits, hundreds of consumers lost applications due to MNsure system failures and those fortunate to have completed an application are waiting weeks for their insurance cards.”

Earlier this month, the Star Tribune reported that an estimated 600 people had to start their online enrollments over after hitting a faulty “save and exit” button, which in some cases lost the partial applications. MNsure said it has since fixed the problem, as well as one related to federal tax credits that discount premium costs.

This week, the Star Tribune reported that callers waited an average of nearly 50 minutes for call center help on Sunday — a problem that MNsure attributed to underestimating demand. In his letter Tuesday, Davids called the explanation an excuse that is “better suited for a high school student turning in a late essay, not a $300 million taxpayer-funded enterprise.”

In a statement Tuesday, MNsure said the current open enrollment period began nearly two months ago on Nov. 1. A previous Dec. 15 deadline for January coverage was extended until Monday to give Minnesotans more time to enroll, the statement noted.

Open enrollment continues until Jan. 31, with deadlines next month for coverage that begins in February and March. The experience from previous years, MNsure said, has shown that call volume and demand are high on deadline days.

“If Minnesotans contact us on a deadline day, or wait until the final hours to enroll in coverage, they will encounter delays,” MNsure said. The statement added: “There will always be politicians that read headlines and try to cause problems rather than find solutions.”


Twitter: @chrissnowbeck