Political reality: DFLers own a MNsure program that fails

MPR News reporter Elizabeth Stawicki’s story today on a consultant’s opinion that the state’s health insurance exchange program “won’t be fixed quickly and the state should consider the option of scrapping the system altogether and starting over,” brings us back to a question that’s lingering: Is anybody in charge listening?

As I wrote in December, so many politicians — starting with Gov. Mark Dayton — have their careers tied to MNsure that the order of the day has been denial for months. The risk of facing the problems head on is political suicide for the leaders — the state is full of “I told you so” opponents who would be happy to take their jobs.

Instead, we’ve been led to believe a little tweak here or a little tweak there and things will be fine. This line of thinking manifests itself in the cliche, “you don’t think Amazon had the same problems when it started?”

Of course, people weren’t required to shop Amazon, and their health doesn’t depend on it even if they did. Also, Jeff Bezos is a pretty good leader and isn’t up for re-election.

It’s understandable that people want MNsure to succeed (some politicians claim to want the site to work, but they’re more interested in simply killing availability of health care to other people), but today’s report isn’t the first wake-up call that it’s not going to, and won’t if someone doesn’t step up and lead.

In fact, one of the recommendations of Optum, the firm that produced today’s assessment, is to identify and define an “accountable program leader.” It took a consultant to come up with that?

The report describes a horribly inefficient system, but then delivers the really bad news: There’s no choice but to stick with it, at least through the first quarter of 2014. It identified three options for getting the system fixed in time for next year’s enrollment, all of which require spending more money and one of which essentially calls for blowing MNsure up and starting again, which happens to be the position of one of the Republican candidates for governor.

How did this mess happen?

Writing in MinnPost, Mark Haveman of the Minnesota Center for Fiscal Fitness, said there are almost two dozen open information technology positions with the state, many of them for MNsure. The advertising for the positions indicates salaries of about $55,000-$65,000 for some top positions:

To investigate whether the state can compete for this talent and fill these needs, we copied these position descriptions verbatim and sent them to some IT professionals and consultants to get an estimate of what private sector firms in the Twin Cities area might be expected to pay to obtain someone with such capabilities and experience.

Our respondents were quick to note they could only generate ballpark estimates. But the consensus was all four positions could easily fetch $100,000 and more in annual salary in the private sector based on the skill requirements and responsibilities described, the extreme tightness of the IT labor market, and the fact that these openings are in the healthcare area. The possible exception was the programmer position, but with four years of professional experience, it was believed that position too could demand a nearly six-figure salary.

“You get what you pay for,” Haveman concludes. And sometimes, you get virtually nothing for what you pay for.

In the meantime, predictably, Republicans are preparing to gang up on Gov. Dayton, the Star Tribune reported this week. It’s already started:

Democrats, in response, say when the system is functioning and thousands of people are getting health insurance, the success stories will overwhelm the Republican efforts.

Today’s report suggests that will come after Election Day, if at all.