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In this undated photo, April Todd-Malmlov answers a question during an interview with The Associated Press in St. Paul. Chief of the state’s health insurance exchange, Todd-Malmlov has resigned abruptly after facing criticism over a flawed rollout and a questionably timed vacation. AP Photo/Jim Mone

Embattled Minn. health exchange chief resigns

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ST. PAUL — A Costa Rican vacation gave MNsure’s executive director a permanent break from her job.

April Todd-Malmlov handed her resignation to the MNsure board Tuesday night after publicity about the trip she and another state official took before Thanksgiving. The trip came at a time when her agency was entering the final few weeks that Minnesotans could buy health insurance so it is effective Jan. 1.

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The vacation was just one of several problems Todd-Malmlov faced in recent weeks. MNsure computer problems since the program launched Oct. 1 have drawn regular headlines as Minnesotans reported that they could not buy insurance.

The board named Scott Leitz, assistant commissioner of the Department of Human Services, to be MNsure’s interim chief executive officer.

A nationwide search is planned for a permanent MNsure leader.

“MNsure must do better,” Leitz said in a statement. “If there are problems or mistakes, we will acknowledge them and fix them.”

MNsure board Chairman Brian Beutner said a chief executive officer was needed to better run the agency.

“Leitz will oversee operational improvements to ensure the exchange works for Minnesotans and address the organization’s long-range planning needs,” a MNsure news release said.

Leitz, who has 16 years’ experience in state and private health care positions, said his first priority will be to make it easier for Minnesotans to obtain health insurance through MNsure by Jan. 1.

MNsure critics said they have warned about multiple MNsure problems.

“With less than a week before the critical enrollment deadline for Minnesota families, zero insurance policy cards have been issued and the MNsure help line is anything but helpful,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Tuesday night. “Tonight’s news offers no comfort to hardworking Minnesotans who are still unsure if they’ll have insurance coverage on Jan. 1”

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said MNsure’s change in leadership is good news, calling the board’s move “strong action.”

“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.”

The MNsure board is scheduled to meet this afternoon, but hastily scheduled the Tuesday night meeting to deal with Todd-Malmlov. It was held behind closed doors.

Most damaging to Todd-Malmlov, 36, may have been a conservative blog’s revelation that she and a top Minnesota Medical Assistance (Medicaid) official took a two-week Costa Rica vacation together.

The Medicaid official, Jim Golden, works with a program connected to MNsure. Golden and Todd-Malmlov live together in St. Paul.

MNsure and Department of Human Services officials say there is no problem with the relationship, but critics say it was a bad choice for them to vacation during a busy time for MNsure.

It has been a rough few months for MNsure and Todd-Malmlov.

Dayton and the Democratic-controlled Legislature approved MNsure this year to meet a requirement in the federal health law known as Obamacare. Supporters said it would be better to sell insurance on a state-run site than letting the federal government run the online health insurance sales program.

MNsure sells insurance online, and with the help of people who provide assistance. Customers have a choice of insurance companies and plans that provide different services and prices.

All policies for sale online are provided by private companies; the state does not provide insurance.

MNsure gives Minnesotans a way to buy private insurance and is the only way for those on Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare to obtain insurance coverage.

Setting up the so-called health care exchange in a short time was a massive task for computer experts, MNsure officials said.

One of the issues that received publicity was when an employee accidentally emailed private insurance broker information. The legislative auditor said the state did not even need to collect some of that information.

Since MNsure went live Oct. 1, technical and other glitches have been common.

Minnesotans found it difficult much of that time to buy insurance online. And with a deadline of next Monday for people who want new policies by Jan. 1, the website would not accept new information Monday and part of Tuesday.

While people cannot buy insurance by telephone, more than 90 operators have been hired to answer questions and direct callers to people who can help consumers buy insurance. However, phone waits of up to an hour were reported, and in the last couple of days it came to light that the phones actually hung up after an hour if MNsure did not answer.

Todd-Malmlov was hired to run MNsure after 15 years of experience in the public and private health care sectors. She served as Minnesota’s state health economist and was responsible for monitoring the health care market and informing state health policy related to health care access, cost and quality.

She also has worked at UnitedHealthcare.

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