By Tom Steward/Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
ST. PAUL, Minn.— As thousands of frustrated Minnesotans were notified about glitches and errors in their applications on the state insurance exchange, April Todd-Malmlov took a two-week break.
Problem is, Todd-Malmlov is MNsure executive director. Her vacation, in November, included a trip to tropical Costa Rica.
Watchdog Minnesota Bureau obtained an out-of-office email reply from Todd-Malmlov’s state account, stamped Nov. 24. The email was from an applicant, who contacted her after trying for more than a month to obtain insurance coverage through the state’s online exchange.
Todd-Malmlov’s automated email reply stated she would be out of the office until Monday, Dec. 2. MNsure staff confirmed Todd-Malmov was out of the office for eight business days before the two-day Thanksgiving Day holiday for state employees.
“Our leadership here works very, very closely with April, and the rest of the MNsure staff are deeply trusted and have the full faith and trust of our executive director and were at the helm in partnership with April even when she was out of the office,” said Jenni Bowring-McDonough, media relations coordinator for MNsure. “It certainly was not a case of any gap in forward motion or any gap in work that needed to be completed and attended to because our commitment every day is to making the improvements that we need to make so that people can have the coverage they need starting Jan. 1.”
Word that MNsure’s top official took a trip to the tropics only added to one applicant’s frustration. Barb Stonebraker faces the loss of her Minnesota Comprehensive Health Association coverage Jan. 1, yet she continues to deal with technical bugs and other problems as she tries to obtain private coverage through Minnesota’s online marketplace.
“I think it’s terrible. I think it’s unconscionable that she would leave when there’s problems and they can’t figure it out,” said Stonebraker, a small business owner in Victoria. “I’ve been trying and I’ve wasted so many hours and hours trying to get an invoice, and I still can’t.”
The office of Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, and the MNsure board of directors were notified well in advance of the departure date and supported Todd-Malmlov’s Costa Rica trip. Todd-Malmlov was available by phone and email and communicated with MNsure personnel every day, according to MNsure communications staff.
Todd-Malmlov’s getaway comes after similar revelations that led to the resignation of Rebecca Pearce, the director of Maryland’s state health exchange, Dec. 6. Pearce came under fire for taking a Caribbean vacation in the midst of a rocky roll-out of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange. Media reports indicate Pearce was in the Cayman Islands and unavailable during Thanksgiving week. Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, a Democrat, told the Baltimore Sun, “We needed all hands on deck. Now is not the time to take a vacation.”
MNsure officials downplayed comparisons between the ill-timed trips.
“We’re aware of that, but I don’t know that we would draw any parallels there though,” said Bowring-McDonough. “Our board and the governor’s office were fully aware long before this trip took place and were supportive of it, and so I don’t see any parallel between the two given what I read in the story.”
One lawmaker believes otherwise.
“I think it’s disappointing when Minnesotans are facing chaos thanks to the changes from MNsure and not getting service that her priority wasn’t here in Minnesota,” said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, a member of the MNsure Legislative Oversight Committee.
Comments posted on MNsure’s Facebook page over the decision to close the health exchange office and help lines Nov. 28 and 29 for the Thanksgiving holiday reflect customers’ dissatisfaction.
“Whoa, you’re taking a holiday when so many cannot even enroll in plans. Is that right?” asked Rebecca on the MNsure page. “Welcome to government run healthcare. Two day holiday during the enrollment period?” posted Kevin.
Contact Tom Steward at firstname.lastname@example.org.