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Numbers show magnitude of MNsure phone attack

ST. PAUL -- Dramatic numbers show something was up when the MNsure state agency opened individual health insurance policy sales. On Tuesday, Nov. 1, the Minnesota agency's telephone call center received 50,000 calls in the first hour it was open ...

ST. PAUL -- Dramatic numbers show something was up when the MNsure state agency opened individual health insurance policy sales.

On Tuesday, Nov. 1, the Minnesota agency's telephone call center received 50,000 calls in the first hour it was open to sell 2017 policies. Throughout the day, 80,000 calls were attempted.

On Wednesday, the number was 4,100 by 3 p.m., a figure that officials said was to be expected.

Gov. Mark Dayton said someone was trying to jam the MNsure phone lines as the agency opened its annual sales effort.

"It certainly is the type of activity we would characterize as that," agreed Jenna Covey, assistant commissioner of digital technology for the state's information technology agency.

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And, she said, "the sheer scale factor" of the difference between the number of Tuesday and Wednesday calls illustrates the problem.

She said Minnesota government never had sustained a phone attack on this scale.

In an interview, Covey and Scott Peterson, chief business technology officer of the same agency, known as MN.IT, stopped short of calling it an attack by robocalls, automated telephone systems. But signs point to that, they said.

The two said their agency continues to investigate not only the telephone issues, but also why nearly 70 state websites, including MNsure.org, sustained half-hour outages at mid-day Tuesday.

Peterson said the Web outages did not appear to be linked to the phone issue. He said the web issue apparently was not caused by an outside source and no security issues are suspected.

He said that on Wednesday there was no repeat of Tuesday's phone and web issues.

"We have a lot of abnormalities to look at..." Covey said. "If we had a big pattern, I think we would be further along than we are today. ... We just need to turn over every stone."

Peterson said telephone numbers of the 80,000 callers need to be examined to determine a pattern and to find where they originated. MN.IT officials said they could not say if calls designed to jam the system were domestic or foreign.

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The 80,000 calls include Minnesotans who got through to the call center to inquire about insurance policies, those who called multiple times because they got busy signals and those from whoever was trying to mess with the MNsure system.

Peterson said that anyone whose call was connected to MNsure could continue working with operators, but many people received busy signals.

A law enforcement agency will be contacted if MN.IT investigators determine it appears a crime was committed, Covey said.

Despite telephone and web woes, MNsure told legislators that more than 7,500 people bought health insurance policies on opening day Tuesday, with another 7,000 completing applications but still needed to pick a plan.

The total number who signed up for policies rose to 8,700 by mid-afternoon Wednesday, MNsure reported. More than 112,000 visits to MNsure.org on Wednesday were reported, with 4,000 people using a tool on the site that allows them to compare policies.

MNsure said that with the telephone issues of Tuesday, wait times averaged 30 minutes. On Wednesday, the agency reported an average six-minute wait.

However, on social media, some MNsure customers reported waits topping two hours.

MNsure announced on Wednesday that its call center -- at (855) 366-7873 -- would be open an hour later than planned the rest of the week and all callers on hold when the center closes still will receive.

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Through Friday, the center will take calls 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., while on Saturday the center will be open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 8 a.m. to noon Sunday. MNsure.org will be open 24 hours a day through Sunday.

The state Legislature created MNsure three years ago to offer health insurance policies to Minnesotans who are not insured by employers or government programs. That accounts for about 5 percent of the state's residents.

 

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The Dayton administration says insurance premiums will rise an average of 50 percent to 67 percent for 2017, with policies on sale for the next couple of months.

Many people who buy individual policies can get federal aid if they go through MNsure. Dayton and lawmakers are working on ways to trim premium costs for others, probably to be up for a vote in a post-election special legislative session.

Part of the force behind heavy first-day MNsure activity is that Dayton and other state officials have encouraged people to buy their 2017 insurance early. There is a fear that since most insurance companies limit the number of policies they will sell that they will hit the caps and people will not be able to buy affordable insurance, if they can buy any policies.

In all but five counties -- Stearns, Benton, Morrison, Mille Lacs and Crow Wing -- Blue Cross Blue Shield offers an unlimited number of Blue Plus health maintenance organization plans. However, it is more expensive than regular insurance, requires higher deductibles and may not pay for patients to go to their normal doctors.

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