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Dayton letter blasts IBM for MNsure website failings

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By CHRISTOPHER SNOWBECK, St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — Gov. Mark Dayton took IBM to task for software failings that he said led to numerous problems with the state-run MNsure health exchange website.

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In a letter last month, the governor blames the IBM software for everything from a “black hole” where applications were irretrievably lost to inaccurate determinations for whether consumers should get financial assistance from the government for their coverage. The letter was made public Friday.

IBM’s Curam division is one of four primary software vendors on the MNsure health insurance exchange project, and Dayton sent the letter to a company official Dec. 13.

The letter preceded a “tech surge” in late December, in which IBM dispatched dozens of workers to St. Paul in a last-minute effort to repair the website prior to a Dec. 31 deadline for coverage that started Jan. 1.

“Your product has not delivered promised functionality and has seriously hindered Minnesotans’ abilities to purchase health insurance or apply for public health care programs through MNsure,” Dayton wrote. “I request that you immediately deploy whatever people or resources are needed to correct the defects in your product that are preventing Minnesotans from obtaining health insurance through MNsure.”

In a statement, IBM spokeswoman Mary Welder said the majority of concerns identified by Dayton have been addressed already. She said the company’s software issues are not the only ones that affect performance of the MNsure system.

“IBM continues to work closely with the other suppliers and the state of Minnesota to make MNsure a more positive experience for Minnesota citizens,” Welder said. “As an example, the percent of suspended applications for coverage decreased by two-thirds between mid-December and early January, and the system is now handling cases at over a 95 percent daily success rate.”

Republicans said the Dayton letter was simply an attempt to shift blame away from his administration.

“For weeks now, Minnesotans have received conflicting information from MNsure about whether they have coverage, what coverage they have and how many more hoops they have to jump through to obtain coverage,” Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, said in a statement. “Enough is enough — what happened to ‘the buck stops here’?”

Minnesota launched the MNsure health insurance exchange last year to implement the federal Affordable Care Act, which requires almost all Americans to have coverage or pay a tax penalty. While nearly 68,000 people are in the final stage of enrolling in coverage through the MNsure website, many have been stymied by website glitches and lengthy waits at the health exchange call center.

In recent weeks, state officials have acknowledged links between MNsure problems and the IBM Curam software, which determines if applicants are eligible for federal tax credits that discount premium costs or for income-based public health insurance coverage.

State officials have said that it was a problem with the IBM software, for example, that prompted them to start rerunning 30,000 applications in late November because an unspecified number of initial eligibility determinations were wrong. When IBM’s system was unable to process thousands of paper applications, state workers had to do so by hand.

But in public comments, state officials have stopped short of squarely blaming IBM for all of MNsure’s problems. The chairman of MNsure’s board of directors, for example, repeatedly thanked IBM for sending workers in December to help both the health exchange website and call center.

Dayton’s letter, however, says that state officials realized in early October that there were serious problems with the IBM product. For starters, it allowed users to submit multiple applications for health insurance, so that some consumers were able to enroll in different plans multiple times, according to Dayton.

The software also let consumers withdraw applications, but didn’t close out the enrollment elsewhere in the system, Dayton wrote. That created problems for people who expected refunds.

“Consequently, Minnesotans have had very confusing and unsatisfactory consumer experiences in trying to submit applications and purchase coverage,” the governor wrote. “These errors have forced MNsure staff to spend thousands of hours trying to clean data and make consumers whole.”

The IBM software failed to properly perform eligibility determinations and verify applicant information as required by federal law, Dayton wrote. He alleged that IBM knew this functionality wasn’t available, but didn’t tell MNsure.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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