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Website problems, robocalls equal bad first day for health insurance sales

ST. PAUL—A telephone attack slowed the MNsure health insurance sales telephone system on the first day Minnesotans could buy policies Tuesday, Nov. 1, and about 70 state Websites experienced outages at mid-day.

A state information technology official said it did not appear the incidents were linked, but they combined to make life miserable for thousands of Minnesotans trying to heed officials' suggestions to buy health policies early.

MNsure CEO Allison O'Toole said her agency was ready for what ended up as the busiest first day to buy policies in its history, but problems arose "because of some outside influences."

Gov. Mark Dayton said it appeared someone was trying to "jam" the MNsure telephone system with automated calls about when the operators picked up their telephones at 8 a.m. to begin talking to Minnesotans wanting to buy individual health insurance.

"Unfortunately there's some people out there who want it to work as badly as possible," Dayton said.

Scott Peterson, a state information technology official, said state is investigating both problems, but gave no hints as to their cause.

Peterson could not say why about 70 state Websites, including MNsure's, experienced intermittent outages at mid-day. He said it was not related to a heavy load on the MNsure site.

The robocall issue was fixed Tuesday morning, all Websites other than MNsure returned to full operation by noon and MNsure was fully up and running by early evening.

Peterson said he could not say if law enforcement officials were contacted about the robocall and Web issues, and state technology officials did not respond to questions asking about that.

The problems came as Minnesotans rushed to get the best deals possible in individual health insurance policies. The 250,000 people who buy individual policies are those not covered by insurance provided by their employers or the government.

Minnesotans have through December to buy policies, but Dayton, O'Toole and other state officials strongly recommend not waiting.

Health insurance policies bought on the individual market for 2017 are going to be 50 percent to 67 percent more expensive, state Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman says.

Most insurance companies offering health policies in the state also are limiting how many customers can sign up, which prompted the suggestions to enroll early.

Once the caps are met, people in most counties only will have Blue Cross Blue Shield's Blue Plus health maintenance organization available for health coverage. It is costlier, has higher deductibles and limits what health-care providers are covered.

While Minnesotans began buying insurance, Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, met at the governor's residence to discuss how to reduce premium increases.

The two emerged after talking more than an hour, without a firm deal but with an agreement for staff members to work together and draw up a plan that could be approved at a post-election special legislative session.

The governor and speaker agreed that a priority is to figure out how to make sure people needing to buy insurance in Stearns, Benton, Morrison, Mille Lacs and Crow Wing counties can get it. Those are the only counties without Blue Plus, which means some of the 7,891 people who need individual policies there may not be able to buy any if companies reach their limits.

By 1 p.m. Tuesday, nearly 50,000 people visited the MNsure Website, despite its problems, O'Toole said. More than 3,400 had bought policies by 2 p.m.

On the phones, more than 13,000 calls had been received by 1 p.m., O'Toole said, with an average 34-minute wait time. However, tweets from some unhappy Minnesotans told of wait times of more than two hours.

"This is uncharted territory for us," O'Toole said. "We are the only state facing these caps right now. We have had early traffic because of these caps. ... It is going to take some time for us to recover from this."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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