MNsure website performance improves; legislators question financial future
By Christopher Snowbeck
ST. PAUL - If you thought you were having trouble last year with the MNsure website, you were right.
The state’s health insurance exchange now has numbers that show the magnitude of website problems following its Oct. 1 launch, as well as figures to suggest the system is improving.
Two weeks into October, one out of every six clicks on the MNsure website failed to send users where they should have gone, according to figures presented Wednesday during a MNsure board meeting in St. Paul.
The 17 percent error rate in mid-October improved somewhat in subsequent weeks, but continued to be measured in double digits through late November. By the first week in December, nearly 67,000 clicks didn’t work.
But now, the error rate is more like 4 percent or 5 percent, said Scott Leitz, the interim chief executive officer at MNsure. In addition, fewer applications are stuck in the system for technical reasons, Leitz said, and wait times at the MNsure call center have moderated significantly.
“The experience now that consumers are facing is … a much better experience,” Leitz said in an interview after the board meeting. “We’re not trying to say that everything has been solved. But there are some data to indicate it is a more stable system, and it has gotten better.”
MNsure hasn’t before presented information on the frequency of website errors. Previously, average wait times at the MNsure call center provided one of the only windows on the problem, since many called for help because they couldn’t get the website to work.
In December, average call center waits regularly exceeded 1 hour, and at one point even hit the 2-hour mark. Average call center waits now are running between 5 minutes and 15 minutes, Leitz said in comments Wednesday morning during a legislative oversight committee hearing at the Capitol.
MNsure expects a surge in enrollment next month as people rush to comply with the federal Affordable Care Act, which requires almost all Americans to have health insurance or pay a tax penalty. To prepare for the surge, MNsure is paying $771,000 to APAC Customer Solutions Inc. to provide a backup call center between now and April.
Fifty workers from the overflow call center started answering phones Wednesday, and another 50 are expected to start fielding calls later this month.
On pending applications, Leitz said that in late December more than 12,000 applications were stuck in a pending status for any of a half-dozen different reasons.
In many cases, the MNsure software couldn’t determine whether consumers qualified for a public health insurance program or tax credits to discount commercial premiums. The tally includes applications that wound up in what officials have described as a “black hole.”
Now, there are fewer than 1,000 of these stuck applications, Leitz said.
“It’s a much smaller problem than it was,” he told board members.
The tally for pending applications presented Wednesday does not include applications that have been held up as consumers submit information to verify their eligibility for government assistance, noted Lucinda Jesson, a MNsure board member and the state human services commissioner. Many consumers have complained about communication problems and long waits as they go through the verification process.
The figures presented Wednesday on website errors show that fixes implemented in December by IBM Curam, one of the primary software vendors for MNsure, helped improve the system, said John Schadl, a MNsure spokesman. Weekly tallies for website errors in December ranged from about 35,000 to 67,000, but the error rate held relatively steady at 5 percent to 6 percent, Schadl said.
“At our peak (week), we had 1 million clicks…,” he said. “The error rate remained steady. That illustrates how those fixes were staying in effect.”
Even so, there were plenty of frustrated consumers in December, Leitz acknowledged. Late in the month, MNsure officials started encouraging people who couldn’t close the deal on coverage through MNsure to buy directly from health insurance companies.
The end result is that MNsure is falling short of hitting even the low end of projections for the number of people who purchase commercial health insurance policies through the health exchange. That’s a problem for MNsure because it must fund operations starting next year by withholding up to 3.5 percent of premiums sold.
As of Feb. 8, fewer than 30,000 had obtained commercial insurance policies through MNsure. At that pace, enrollment won’t hit the goal of nearly 70,000 people in commercial health plans by the end of March.
During the legislative oversight hearing Wednesday morning at the Capitol, lawmakers continued to press for information on how MNsure might address the shortfall.
“We’re getting perilously close to decision time,” said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake.
Brian Beutner, the MNsure board chairman, said federal grants will continue to fund operations in 2014, so the budget problem isn’t immediate. In addition, there’s a chance that MNsure could receive another grant from the federal government to fund website fixes planned for this year.
Beutner said it would be tough for MNsure to project funding needs for 2015 and following years until April, at which point the health exchange will know exactly how many people bought commercial policies during the expected surge in March. But legislators pointed out that MNsure is required by March 15 to provide the Legislature with a 2015 budget.
“How much more expensive is this going to be?” asked Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska. “I think we need to know what’s going to happen when the grants are gone.”
Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said during the hearing that a key question is whether MNsure plans on “coming to the Legislature in 2014 and asking for a supplemental budget.” But in an interview after the hearing, Lourey said MNsure leaders have told him they don’t plan to seek funds during the state’s current budget cycle, which ends in June 2015.
Current budget projections show MNsure running a $2.5 million deficit by December 2015 and a $3.1 million deficit by the end of 2016. Lourey said he’s been told by MNsure leaders that the deficits — while not insignificant in size — are “probably manageable.”