- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 16, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - An outside consultant told directors of Minnesota’s health insurance exchange on Wednesday that the troubled system has enough horsepower as the fall open enrollment period approaches, amid Republican calls to kill the online marketplace altogether.

Brian Keane of Deloitte Consulting LLP told the MNsure board that his team has identified 30 key functions that have to work properly by Nov. 15, including processing of renewals. He said they’re determining which functions must be automated and which can be manual systems if necessary.

“By our review there is plenty of horsepower available,” Keane said in a discussion heavy on automobile analogies as board members struggled to understand the complexities of information technology project management. Keane said the task plan Deloitte is developing will run thousands of lines.

MNsure hired Deloitte for $5 million in April to be its new general contractor and provide a roadmap for overhauling the state-run system, which struggled with technical problems that led to long call center waits during last fall’s first open enrollment period. Enrollment has grown to over 259,000, however, and Keane said MNsure is getting the system into better shape for this fall.

“It’s encouraging to see the momentum there,” he said. “I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. … It’s going to be a difficult row to hoe, but not impossible.”

Keane said much of MNsure’s technical infrastructure is “contemporary and consistent with industry practices.” But he said it’s a complicated system that relies heavily on four commercial off-the-shelf software products from different vendors that need to work in harmony. The products deal with identity protection and security, eligibility determinations, plan shopping and selection, and payment processing. Each has its own interface for consumers, which he said makes the shopping experience similar to visiting multiple websites - and potentially confusing.

There have been growing calls among Minnesota Republicans this campaign season to scrap MNsure, which is the state’s main component of the Obama administration’s health care overhaul. GOP-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson issued a statement Wednesday calling MNsure a “technological disaster” and saying that fixing the website won’t solve the bigger problems of rising premiums.

Alycia Riedl, president of the Minnesota Association of Health Underwriters, called on Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration during the meeting to release 2015 premium rates as soon as possible so consumers and employers can make decisions. The administration says it won’t do that until open enrollment begins Nov. 15. Republicans charge that the administration is deliberately withholding those rates until after the election because it’s afraid premiums will be higher next year.

MNsure board members discussed the many decisions that lie ahead, but the possibility of dumping the system and switching to the federal exchange wasn’t one of them.

“We’ve already made the big one - bet on what we have and double down and make it work,” board member Thomas Forsythe said.

MNsure’s executive director, Scott Leitz, said afterward that it was a more upbeat assessment than the first diagnosis Deloitte gave MNsure last month.

“We’re happy that they’re seeing good progress but we’re eyes-wide-open that there’s a lot of work to do,” he said.