Gov. Mark Dayton is losing his patience with the problems that are still plaguing MNsure -- the glitches, the waits, the short staff. Now, the executive director of the state health insurance exchange may be on a short leash.
An ill-timed November getaway appears to have added fuel to the fire of discontent in the governor's office. It's certainly become a focal point for a lot of the anger top lawmakers are directing at MNsure.
The argument is this: Accountants don't take vacations in April; news people work during sweeps month; retailers are swarmed in December. So, if you're running a health care exchange, November and December are terrible times to be away from the office.
After a week of sub-zero temperatures, most Minnesotans have dreamt of escaping to someplace warm, perhaps even tropical. Some place like Costa Rica, with its sunny beaches. On Thursday, the high in San Jose was 75 degrees. That is where April Todd-Malmlov, executive director of MNsure, went for 8 work days leading up to the long Thanksgiving weekend.
The conservative news site Watchdog.org broke the story when a woman who had been trying to get insurance for a month got an automated reply telling her the boss was out until Dec. 2.
"It's obviously a critical time for MNSure and she's ultimately responsible for that," Dayton said.
It was hard to read Dayton on Thursday as he addressed the lingering MNSure problems, which he says are keeping him up at night.
"I'm incredulous," he said bluntly.
At times, the governor appeared to be quietly seething -- and he didn't hold back his irritation with the lingering issues that users are facing.
"I think we're past the point where MNsure's problems are acceptable," he said.
The MNsure website has been dogged by computer glitches, and the call center has seen hour-long wait times. So far, 71,570 people have completed applications; however, only one third are actually enrolling.
Todd-Malmlov wouldn't make herself available for an interview, but MNsure said in a statement that she was available by phone and e-mail during her trip. Even so, at least one lawmaker wonders what kind of leadership it shows to be gone while all hell is breaking loose.
"It's poor timing -- absolutely poor timing," Minnesota Sen. Sean Nienow said.
Nienow sits on the MNsure oversight committee, and he says even if the Costa Rica trip was planned and paid for, that's no excuse.
"That needed to be a consideration beforehand," he said. "There was no more critical time for MNsure than October and November. That's the big push."
Nienow punctuated his point by referencing a letter the Minnesota Council of Health Plans sent last week, saying the information they are getting from MNsure is riddled with errors, duplicate enrollments and missing information. Meanwhile, time is ticking. There's a Dec. 23rd deadline to sign up, and the insurance is expected to kick in on Jan. 1.
From Todd-Malmlov's third-floor office, Costa Rica likely looks awfully good right now -- especially with the governor breathing down her neck.
"Let's see how they respond in the next week to 10 days," he challenged.
That's a sort of kick in the pants. On Thursday, Dayton made it quite clear that Todd-Malmlov doesn't report to him, but to the MNsure board. Both bear responsibility, he says.
Just last week, the head of Maryland's health care exchange resigned last week shortly after it was reported that she went on a Thanksgiving vacation to the Cayman Islands.