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Phone lines for the state's MNsure health insurance exchange received over 80,000 calls on Tuesday—far more than usual.
An IT agency in Minnesota is conducting an investigation into who or what might have caused thousands of calls to flood phone lines for the state’s health insurance marketplace on Tuesday.
Details about the investigation remain sparse. Gov. Mark Dayton suggested earlier this week that a mischievous barrage of robocalls had inundated a call center for the MNsure health insurance exchange. But a spokesperson for Minnesota’s information technology services department, known as MNIT, declined to confirm on Thursday that that his was the case.
“We are not speculating at all,” said the spokesperson, who asked to not be identified by name.
She added: “There’s a tremendous amount of data to dig through to try to understand and look at patterns.”
Asked what, other than robocalls, might have caused the high call volume, she said there are “many possibilities” but did not elaborate.
MNIT oversees cybersecurity issues for the state and is carrying out the investigation into the calls, the spokesperson said. So far, no law enforcement agencies are involved, she added. But that could change if it turns out the high call volume was the result of nefarious activity meant to intentionally disrupt MNsure phone lines.
Tuesday marked the beginning of the three-month open enrollment period for buying health insurance over the state exchange for 2017.
On that day, the MNsure hotline received more than 50,000 attempted calls before 9 a.m. and over 80,000 throughout the day, according to information MNsure and MNIT jointly released.
Caller wait times averaged about 30 minutes, the MNIT spokesperson said. And not everyone who was calling got through. Some callers encountered busy signals or dropped calls.
By comparison, as of 3 p.m. Wednesday about 4,100 calls had come in and caller wait times were averaging around 6 minutes. These figures are more in line with past call activity.
A spokesperson for MNsure, who asked that information be attributed to the agency, would not offer details about the content of any calls received on the hotline Tuesday, citing the ongoing investigation.
She explained in an email Thursday that both state employees and those working for a vendor, The Connection, field phone calls from MNsure customers.
The MNIT spokesperson could not confirm whether a large volume of calls originated from one phone number or location. One detail she did offer was that there was an “anomaly” Tuesday involving lines where no language preference was getting selected as calls were initiated.
There were also problems with the MNsure website on Tuesday. It went down for about 30 minutes along with portions of websites for nearly 70 other state agencies. The MNIT spokesperson said Thursday that these website outages remain under investigation as well.
Minnesota operates one of 12 state-based marketplaces where people can shop for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, according to Kaiser Family Foundation. Other states rely to varying degrees on federal IT technology and the federally-run HealthCare.gov to provide residents access to coverage.
Longstanding partisan disagreements over the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, flared in recent weeks, as it became clear that premiums would rise steeply for many consumers in 2017. Minnesota has not been immune, as Republican critics of the Affordable Care Act and MNsure have sparred with Dayton, a Democrat.
Bill Lucia is a reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
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