MNsure signs up 90,000

Published 10:27 am Thursday, February 6, 2014

Commercial growth lags

By Christopher Snowbeck

St. Paul Pioneer Press

Outside reinforcements are on the way for the beleaguered MNsure call center.

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During a meeting Wednesday in St. Paul, the board of Minnesota’s new health insurance exchange authorized the hiring of an outside call center vendor at a cost of up to $750,000. The move should help address caller complaints about long waits — up to two hours on average at one point — for help.

The final contract should be signed by the end of the week and will make available about 100 workers by early March, said Scott Leitz, MNsure’s interim chief executive officer.

MNsure is preparing for an expected surge in consumer demand in March as people obtain coverage to comply with the federal Affordable Care Act.

There was a similar rush for coverage in December, but operators at the MNsure call center were overwhelmed trying to assist callers with a health exchange website riddled with problems.

“We anticipate reaching an agreement with (the vendor) in the next day or so,” Leitz told board members.

Training of the workers already has begun.

Meanwhile, Republicans criticized MNsure’s process for handling the contract, noting that the vendor is expected to perform work until April 30.

“It’s disturbing to learn that MNsure negotiated a $250,000 per month agreement behind closed doors to assist their broken call center,” Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, said in a statement.

“Gov. Dayton and Democrats had three years to develop a plan and have known for months that the call center was leaving Minnesotans frustrated without assistance. MNsure should have issued a request for proposal and cast a wide and competitive net to find experts who could fix this mess.”

MNsure sought bids from the three companies, Leitz said, but was not required to issue a formal request for proposal because of the emergency nature of the procurement.

He said one of the companies was Optum, a division of Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group that last month recommended MNsure increase its call center staff.

The final contract should go to APAC Customer Services Inc., Leitz said, adding that the company operates out of Mendota Heights.

Call center operators from the company likely would work in St. Paul at MNsure’s call center, he said, as well as from the company’s facility.

Over the past few months, board member and General Mills executive Tom Forsythe has voiced frustrations about problems at the call center. On Wednesday, he expressed support for hiring the outside help.

But the call center discussion at the start of Wednesday’s meeting set the stage for several members to voice frustrations over MNsure’s rocky road.

Forsythe complained about the lack of information for board members about MNsure’s operating performance. He wondered whether 10-hour meetings are needed so that board members can take deeper dives into issues.

“I am struggling with how to be a good board member here,” Forsythe said. In an apparent reference to the call center, he said: “I do not feel the approach I’ve taken in the past has been adequate based on the current experience.”

Other board members sounded frustrated, too.

“I don’t think we were appointed because we are very comfortable with failure or anything other than success,” said board member Phil Norrgard, who is director of human services for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Leitz is doing a better job giving board members information, Norrgard said, without mentioning previous executive director April Todd-Malmlov, who resigned in December. But Norrgard ruminated on the lack of information provided to the board as MNsure problems started to surface in the late fall.