MNsure hires outside vendor to help field calls
ST. PAUL — Outside reinforcements are on the way for the beleaguered MNsure call center.
During a meeting Wednesday in St. Paul, the board of Minnesota’s new health insurance exchange hired 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, the interim chief executive officer at MNsure.
MNsure is preparing for an expected surge in consumer demand next month as people obtain coverage to comply with the federal Affordable Care Act.
There was a similar rush for people to obtain coverage in December, but operators at the MNsure call center were overwhelmed trying to assist people with a health exchange website that was riddled with IT glitches.
“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. But Republicans on Wednesday criticized MNsure’s process for handling the contract, noting that the vendor is expected to perform work through the end of April.
“It’s disturbing to learn that MNsure negotiated a $250,000 per month agreement behind closed doors to assist their broken call center,” said Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, 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,” Hoppe said. “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 three companies that bid on the contract was Optum, a division of Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group that last month provided MNsure with a report that recommended the call center reinforcements.
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 repeatedly voiced frustrations about problems at the MNsure call center. On Wednesday, he expressed support for hiring the outside help.
But the call center discussion at the meeting’s outset 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 dul 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.
“Why didn’t I ask the questions harder, earlier, stronger?” Norrgard asked. “Why didn’t we get more information?”
“The fact is, there wasn’t much information about operations, and data that we could actually look at,” he added. “It was like grasping at water — it would just run through your hands.”
At another point in the meeting, board chairman Brian Beutner voiced concern that MNsure right now is spending too much time “talking about the sins of the past, and defending or explaining actions.” The backward focus could distract from making timely decisions about the agency’s future.
“I don’t want to get bogged down,” Beutner said. “Let’s focus on moving forward.”
This week, daily average waits at the MNsure call center have ranged from seven to 14 minutes, said Eric Larson, the chief operating officer at MNsure. Even so, the volume of calls that have been coming into MNsure in recent weeks is less than half the volume seen in December, according to slides presented at Wednesday’s board meeting.
“The system is working much more effectively for folks,” Larson told board members. “We’re not getting the same kind of technical calls that we were getting.”
MNsure set aside $350,000 last year to hire an outside call center vendor, said Leitz, the interim executive director. Those funds, along with savings that MNsure has realized within its budget, will pay for the new vendor contract.
When asked why the agency didn’t hire the outside call center last year, Beutner said after the meeting: “It was on management to execute the contract and get it done. And for whatever reason, things weren’t done and we continued to make other changes.”
John Schadl, a MNsure spokesman, said the agency’s website in November was struggling to accurately assess whether MNsure users qualified for government assistance. So, officials focused resources on addressing the software problem, Schadl said, rather than pay what seemed like a high price for help from an outside call center.
“We would have spent a lot of money to tell folks we couldn’t help them,” Schadl said. “We decided to focus on dealing with the software issue that was at hand.”
Also on Wednesday, MNsure released figures showing that more than 90,000 people had enrolled in public and private health insurance plans through MNsure by Feb. 1 — an increase of nearly 13 percent compared with mid-January.
The increase was driven largely by enrollment in the state’s Medical Assistance public health insurance program, which covers the state’s lowest-income residents. Enrollment through MNsure in commercial health plans, however, continued to lag.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.