Legislative Auditor James Nobles won lawmakers' backing Wednesday for a wider investigation of what led to the troubled rollout of the MNsure health insurance exchange.

Nobles said the effort will be extensive and lengthy, and he predicted it won't be finished and made public until December. "It is going to be broad. It is going to be deep," Nobles said.

The time frame for the audit means its findings would not be a factor during next fall's gubernatorial election. Republican critics of the agency have lambasted ongoing technical problems and are expected to use MNsure's stumbles in their effort to unseat Gov. Mark Dayton, who is up for re-election on Nov. 4.

Nobles said the timing of his report "has nothing to do with any election."

Republican state Sen. Michelle Benson, one of MNsure's toughest critics, said she does not question when the audit would be completed. "I would trust Jim Nobles' judgment on that," Benson said. "He is not political. He is very good at his job."

Nobles is already working on a more limited MNsure audit. The review primarily examines whether MNsure complied with various federal laws and regulations in how it has handled $155 million in federal grants that Minnesota received to build and operate the health insurance exchange. Nobles expects to release that report in June.

The new audit, Nobles said, will compare what happened in Minnesota with exchanges in other states, several of which suffered from similar website failures and enrollment delays.

"We will be looking at the development of the website, what caused the initial problems, how they were addressed and what additional costs were incurred because of the problems," he said.

Since its Oct. 1 debut, MNsure has struggled with website crashes and computer glitches that have caused months of headaches for thousands of customers, many of whom are still waiting to find out whether they have insurance. A recent Star Tribune report showed that state officials were aware of major problems for months but failed to address most defects during a hurried rollout. The report also showed that Minnesota officials were unaware that the launch of online enrollment could be indefinitely postponed without penalty.

'The first couple of innings'

At a legislative oversight meeting Wednesday, MNsure Chairman Brian Beutner pleaded for patience, saying, "We're in the first couple of innings in a nine-inning game" and that "there will be more bumps along the way."

Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, urged Minnesotans to wait for the findings of Nobles' investigation before judging the agency based on news media accounts.

Hayden said newspaper stories "can be read out of context" and lead to "premature" assumptions.

DFL Rep. Joe Atkins, co-chairman of the oversight committee, said he "prefers to look forward" and not rehash the decisions that brought MNsure to where it is today. He praised the agency for signing up 181,000 customers since Oct. 1, well above its conservative goal of 135,000.

Atkins said the media should focus more on MNsure's low rates, pointing out that Wisconsin residents are typically paying 88 percent more than Minnesotans for health insurance through their exchange because Wisconsin is part of the federal system. He said that is why Minnesota opted to build its own exchange.

"We absolutely made the right choice in keeping this local," Atkins said.

Republican committee members, however, were frustrated with their inability to question administration officials about MNsure's rollout. Dayton blocked key officials, including Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, from appearing Wednesday before the panel.

"We can't improve things if we can't work together," Benson said.

Republican members of the panel said they welcomed tough media coverage of MNsure, citing the Star Tribune's report that revealed Dayton was informed of major problems with MNsure's website 12 days before the exchange launched. Dayton acknowledged this week that he "misspoke" when he previously said he was unaware of technical problems until November.

"I don't believe the governor lied," Benson said. "I believe that his staff told him one thing and told us something else. … That's a problem. The Legislature can't do its job, the [MNsure] board can't do its job, if the executive [branch] is keeping things from us when we have authority to see them."

Separately, MNsure announced Wednesday it has agreed to general contract terms with a company to finish repairs and development of the agency's troubled website.

MNsure officials said they can't disclose the identity of the winning bidder, or the cost of the new contract, until the deal is approved by federal officials. MNsure Interim CEO Scott Leitz said he expects the new company to start work this month.

Leitz said MNsure staff members learned from last fall's mistakes, noting that wait times to the beefed-up call center averaged eight minutes in the hectic days before open enrollment ended March 31 — vs. as long as two hours in 2013.

"The system we have right now is better than it was dramatically, but it is still not perfect and where we want it to be," Leitz said.

Seven companies submitted bids on the multimillion-dollar contract, including EngagePoint, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., company that has been coordinating technical work on the health insurance exchange since the Minnesota officials took project management duties from its original contractor last year.

That company, Maximus, is not among the current bidders. EngagePoint was initially hired to design billing and other financial management activities for MNsure.

The list of bidders for the new contract also includes Deloitte Consulting, which bid on the original MNsure contract but was unable to come to terms with the state because it wanted $20 million more than Minnesota was willing to pay.