The state health insurance exchange is in a state of managerial limbo following the resignation of its longtime leader less than two weeks before the debut of plans sold through the new program. The swirl of controversy around MNsure, which had become a frequent source of concern for members of both parties, hit a fever pitch on Tuesday evening with the sudden resignation of executive director April Todd-Malmlov.
The unexpected ouster of the woman who had shepherded the state’s efforts to design and launch its own insurance exchange follows months of complaints from Republican leaders. Their vocal skepticism regarding MNsure’s preparedness for a looming Jan. 1 effective date for plans sold there was increasingly brought to bear on Gov. Mark Dayton and Todd-Malmlov, who was criticized for a two-week vacation she took in November.
Todd-Malmlov’s resignation was accepted during a hastily convened meeting that was closed to the public. Scott Leitz, an assistant commissioner at the Department of Human Services, was immediately named her interim replacement, and the board is said to be taking up a nationwide search for a long-term successor.
Dayton welcomes change at “critical time”
In a statement released Tuesday night, MNsure board chairman Brian Beutner thanked Todd-Malmlov for her service, which had included frequent appearances at the Capitol to testify about progress on the MNsure.org website before open enrollment began in October.
Beutner said the time was right to change the leadership in hopes of finding the right person to lead the operation.
“The Board believes the organization is at a stage where it needs a CEO to manage both MNsure’s current challenges and position it for greater success in the future,” Beutner said.
News of the change in directors drew supportive statements from Dayton and Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, the chief House author of MNsure legislation earlier this year, while House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said Todd-Malmlov’s sudden departure might be too little, too late to fix frequent technological and operational problems that have dogged MNsure to this point.
Todd-Malmlov, whose leadership tenure dates back to early 2011, was thought to be the single most powerful driving force behind Minnesota’s effort to design and organize its own insurance exchange as required by the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Under her guidance, the exchange effort had won more than $150 million worth of federal grant awards toward setting up its own website and the supporting bureaucracy.
Whether MNsure was tracking toward success or failure had been a matter of debate for some time, with Democrats touting the state’s lowest-in-the-nation rank for average premium costs, and Republicans raising concerns about consumer data security and uncertainty over whether customers who had enrolled through the exchange would be covered starting at the beginning of 2014.
As the controversy swelled in recent weeks, Dayton had originally defended Todd-Malmlov’s work, as well as her decision to vacation outside the country last month. But in a terse statement from the governor’s office on Tuesday that failed even to mention Todd-Malmlov by name, Dayton said, “I fully support [the board’s] decision,” adding, “As I have said before – and have made emphatically clear to the MNsure Board – now is a critical time for Minnesotans, who are relying on this exchange to purchase good quality, yet affordable, health insurance,” Dayton said. “The recent problems some have experienced with MNsure are completely unacceptable. I am hopeful that this new leadership will lead to their swift resolution.”
Leitz: a trusted Jesson deputy
In choosing Leitz as the interim director, the board selected a trusted deputy to DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson. Prior to Tuesday’s appointment, Leitz had served as the Department of Human Services’ chief liaison with MNsure.
“MNsure must do better,” Leitz said in a statement accompanying the announcement of Todd-Malmlov’s resignation. “If there are problems or mistakes, we will acknowledge them and fix them.”
Atkins, in his own statement addressing Todd-Malmlov’s resignation, said MNsure should dedicate its attention to working with vendors to alleviate technological problems. The MNsure.org website has had several extended periods of downtime during the open enrollment phase, and the call center associated with the exchange has seen wait times of up to one hour.
At a Monday press conference, Daudt, along with Senate Minority Leader David Hann, had said the governor should be made to answer for problems with MNsure. The House Republican caucus leader continued a similar line of argument in a statement which said Todd-Malmlov’s leaving “offers no comfort” to consumers.
“For too long, Gov. Dayton and Democrats have ignored the reality that their new state agency, MNsure, is failing Minnesotans,” Daudt said.
News of the management shake-up was also welcomed by Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Honour, who had called for Todd-Malmlov to step down in a statement released on Monday. Honour, a businessman, had said the director’s decision to take a vacation during such a vital time for MNsure was “beyond belief,” and should lead to her ouster.
“For the many Minnesotans still struggling to sign up for health care through MNSure, the director’s resignation was a good first step,” Honour said Tuesday night.