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MNsure signs month's worth of customers in 2 days

Minnsota state technology official Scott Peterson and MNsure executive Allison O'Toole listen to a reporter's question Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016, as they provide an update on how individual health insurance policy sales are going. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)1 / 2
MNsure executive Allison O'Toole tells reporters Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016, that her agency sold more health insurance policies the first two days they were available than it did by Thanksgiving a year ago. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)2 / 2

Technology issues are fixed and the state's MNsure health insurance sales program has enrolled 10,000 Minnesotans, a mark not hit for nearly a month last year.

"We've helped more Minnesotans than we have in any two-day period in our history," MNsure executive Allison O'Toole told reporters Thursday, Nov. 3.

She and Scott Peterson of the state's information technology agency, known as MN.IT, said an investigation continues into what Gov. Mark Dayton described as an attack on the MNsure telephone system Tuesday, the first day Minnesotans could buy individual health policies for 2017.

The two said 80,000 calls received on Tuesday was far above what they expected. Customers' telephone wait times dropped from an average of more than half an hour Tuesday to six minutes Wednesday to about two minutes Thursday, O'Toole said.

About 1,600 calls were fielded in the first hour Thursday, a fraction of the calls that came in at the same time Tuesday.

Many of the Tuesday calls appeared to come from an automated calling device, known as robocalling. O'Toole said the calling telephone entered the language preferred, but took no other action, even though callers are expected to make other choices on the phone menu.

"This is one of the many anomalies that we are looking at," Peterson said, without being specific.

The huge call volume meant a number of people who wanted to discuss insurance received a busy signal.

"If someone was playing a game, a lot of Minnesotans were hurt by it," O'Toole said.

Peterson said that MN.IT has seen no phone problems since Tuesday.

He also said the website has worked well. About 70 state sites, including MNsure.org, sustained outages for a half hour at mid-day Tuesday. No outside attack is suspected for the web issue, which like the phone problem remains under investigation.

O'Toole called the Tuesday phone event "suspicious," but on Tuesday Dayton said it was an intentional attempt to jam up the lines by MNsure opponents.

One reason so many people have bought insurance early in the enrollment period is the state Commerce Department said insurance companies are limiting how many new policies they sell, and state officials encourage people to sign up early before normal policies are sold out.

A Commerce Department spokesman said the state cannot announce when insurance companies are about to hit their new policy limits, but MNsure.org will list companies that no longer have policies available.

Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman plans to compile information twice a week to let MNsure know when to stop selling a company's policy. MNsure has two days to take a company off MNsure.org once Commerce says the cap has been reached.

A person can buy a policy as long as it is on MNsure.org, even if the company's cap has been exceeded.

While insurers cannot lower the number of new policies it will sell, Dayton said earlier this week that his administration is asking companies to voluntarily raise their limits.

Rothman has said the average policy cost will rise 50 percent to 67 percent next year, and state officials suggest buying policies as soon as possible before the insurance companies' caps are met.

In all but five counties — Stearns, Benton, Morrison, Mille Lacs and Crow Wing — Blue Cross Blue Shield offers an unlimited number of health maintenance organization plans. However, the plans are more expensive, require higher deductibles and may not pay for patients to go to their regular doctors.

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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