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Health exchange launches successfully as officials await feedback, fallout

MNsure opened in time for Obamacare’s initial Oct. 1 deadline, with more than 100,000 visits just hours after it opened.

Minnesota’s exchange will operate from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and then be offline overnight and on Sundays for system maintenance and updates.

Now that it’s live, MNsure officials are awaiting citizen feedback and the political fallout from Minnesota’s Tuesday launch of its health insurance exchange.

The governing board wants hard numbers to back up anecdotal reports from the first month of the exchange’s operation in order to measure how it is actually performing — separate from the politics and expectations.

“If there aren’t 1.3 million people who sign up on the first day, the Republicans are going to say it’s a failure,” MNsure Board Chairman Brian Beutner said Friday about ongoing complaints from GOP legislators. “They’re going to be able to find people who went on the website and said, ‘Oh, this is confusing, and the rates suck for me.’ ”

“Over time, a month from now, I want to be able to look back and say, ‘Hey, there’s 1,000 people or 10,000 people, or whatever the number is, who now have access to health care,” he said.

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MNsure opened Tuesday afternoon – along with several other state-run health insurance marketplaces and the federal exchange that covers states, such as Wisconsin, that opted not to run their own operation. As was true throughout the country, some consumers in Minnesota were unable to use the exchange’s basic features.

On Wednesday morning, the exchange rolled out in-person assistance, but it’s still working on procedures for American Indians who want to enroll.

Minnesota’s exchange opened in time for Obamacare’s initial Oct. 1 deadline, with more than 100,000 visits just hours after it opened. About half of users were affected by problems that made it difficult to create an account to buy insurance, exchange officials said.

April Todd-Malmlov, the exchange director, launched the marketplace Tuesday. “I myself did the honors this afternoon,” she said on a conference call to reporters Tuesday evening, noting that staff was “jubilant” to have reached this milestone.

“People are just really happy to be hitting this date and to be up and successfully running,” she added.

In its first phase, Minnesota’s exchange will operate from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and then be offline overnight and on Sundays for system maintenance and updates.

It’s unclear how many of the 500 users who signed up for MNsure in the first hour actually purchased insurance, Todd-Malmlov said.

But the launch had the second-most visits in state history, and the exchange had about 2,500 separate users on it on average for the first hour of operation, she said.

Todd-Malmlov said the state was prepared for “high volume” traffic on the first day.

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Exchange officials expect the marketplace to serve more than 1.3 million consumers and small businesses comparing and shopping for insurance options.

In recent weeks, exchange leaders had been working to dampen expectations for the marketplace’s launch. MNsure’s Twitter account, using the hashtag “It’s only day one,” reinforced that message.

Todd-Malmlov said users were able to go in and shop for a plan, create an account and determine whether they’re eligible for tax credits or public health programs. Small businesses could set up accounts and select plans for future employee enrollment.

All the features exchange officials had promised on Monday were there, she said.

But some users on Twitter described problems creating an account to actually purchase any insurance. MinnPost was able to find plans but also was unable to create an account to purchase them – a problem that persisted into Wednesday morning.

Todd-Malmlov described the account creation problems as a server issue that was being fixed Tuesday afternoon. Without it, one could search for a plan but not actually purchase the insurance.

MinnPost previously reported on technical problems in the exchange development, which included issues with user account creation. At the time, Todd-Malmlov said those difficulties had been addressed.

The federal exchange was described as slow and glitchy, but nearly 3 million people accessed the marketplace.

Linda Blumberg, a senior fellow in the Health Policy Center at the Urban Institute, said she had been tinkering with some of the exchanges over the course of the day.

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Many of the systems were slow, but it’s difficult to know much past that without any hard data, she said. “There’s been some little glitchy things with lots of people being on the websites earlier today.”

Although the exchange wasn’t fully functional, its rollout was a success for the project, which had its share of controversies over the past month.

Among them was an exchange staffer, who was later terminated, who sent out an email to an insurance agent that contained private information.

Also, a series of outreach grants to organizations that will assist consumers with getting coverage still haven’t been finalized, despite multiple internal deadlines passing. Training for insurance brokers and navigators was also delayed, which delayed the launch of in-person assistance.

But hundreds of brokers and navigators appeared online on Wednesday. Todd-Malmlov said the exchange is working with roughly 5,000 people who will assist consumers in person across the state.

She also addressed security concerns that have been plaguing the exchange since the data breach. Todd-Malmlov and Chris Buse, the state’s chief information security officer, said last week the exchange wouldn’t go live if they found any “smoking guns” or security risks.

Those final tests, including Tuesday morning checks with the federal data hub, were adequate, she said.

Beutner said he was excited to have actual data to measure the exchange against moving into the future.

“I’m looking forward to having this conversation in a few weeks where we can start putting real data out there, and saying, ‘This is what’s going on.’ ”