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By Don Davis, Published April 03 2014

GOP congressman grills MNsure leader

An Arizona congressman went on the offensive against Minnesota's health insurance exchange during a Thursday U.S. House hearing in Washington.

Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar shot his first question to MNsure interim CEO Scott Leitz, asking why the state would pay nearly $27,000 in bonuses to people responsible "for a blotched Website?"

"Those bonuses were approved by the previous director," Leitz replied.

"Have you done anything to claw back those bonuses?" Gosar fired back, wondering if the former staff members were required to pay back any of the money.

"Not to this point, no, sir," Leitz said.

Gosar responded: "Interesting."

The exchange came after testimony by Leitz and leaders of other state-run exchanges, which were established as a mostly online method of selling health insurance.

MNsure launched in October with numerous Website and other problems, including wait times at the telephone call center of up to an hour, after which customers were disconnected. The Website would not allow thousands of potential customers to sign up for insurance, problems Leitz said mostly have been resolved.

"Today, I am proud to say MNsure is stable, secure and successful," Leitz testified, adding that nearly 170,000 people have signed up for insurance.

When he took over after the first MNsure director was fired, Leitz said,

"I took immediate action."

"Working in close partnership with our vendors we were able to stabilize our system," Leitz said. "Our eligibility software is now operating with an over 99 percent success rate, compared to 70 percent in mid-December. And our online marketplace has been stable enough to process more than 2,000 enrollments a day."

Gosar asked if people have been fired because of the problems, to which Leitz said "individuals are no longer" with MNsure. To another Gosar question, Leitz said that they no longer work for state government.

The hearing in the Republican-controlled House was called "Examining Obamacare’s problem-filled state exchanges." Republicans joined Gasar in being critical of the federal health care law, while Democrats praised witnesses who are charged with implementing the law.

"Thank you for your outstanding testimony..." Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said. "You turned lemons into lemonade."

Vice Chairman Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., said that while exchange officials say people pay less for insurance now, that is not what he hears from constituents. "People are paying much more than they used to. .. Who are you going to believe?"

Leitz began his testimony talking about Corey and Kate Needleman of Minneapolis, who after the birth of their third child "had to choose between paying their mortgage or paying their health bills." Now, he said, they have affordable insurance bought through MNsure.

He said federal law that led to MNsure's formation is more than a Website.

"It’s about getting real people and families into affordable, comprehensive health coverage," Leitz said. "This is something we are doing well in Minnesota."