To save or not to save METS: That’s the real question for counties

Three years after a disastrous launch, the MNsure state health care exchange’s IT system (METS) remains so dysfunctional that county officials still struggling to implement it openly question whether the system should be scrapped.

“The whole operability of the public program side is a complete, unmitigated disaster,” said Dakota County Commissioner Mary Liz Holberg.

“After a while you just get numb,” said Pennington County Commissioner Darryl Tveitbakk. “…The administration of it has been a disaster.”

“It’s been three years of incremental improvements, temporary fixes and manual work-arounds for public healthcare programs,” Hennepin County Board Chair Jan Callison told Gov. Mark Dayton in a letter.paul-bunyan

Counties were told MNsure’s new online “METS” eligibility determination system would make their job of enrolling record numbers of Minnesotans into the system easier.

But the Minnesota Eligibility and Technology System (METS) has been plagued with chronic software problems that make eligibility workers nostalgic for the 1980s mainframe system being replaced.

“We never know from case to case in which situations we can load information and everything will work correctly or shut things down and reload everything from scratch,” said Kathleen Herring, Financial Assistance Supervisor for Pennington County Human Services.

The Minnesota Association of Counties estimates it costs property taxpayers $27 million a year to keep the wheels on what some view as a fatally flawed system.  In Olmsted County, for example, commissioners blame MNsure-related staff expenses for $800,000 of a pending 2.5 percent levy rate hike.

“We really need to look at the hidden cost of administering METS and the consequence to the taxpayer. We are in the midst of working on our truth in taxation hearings and our county budgets and all over the state counties are adding staff,” Olmsted County Commissioner Shelia Kiscaden told a MNsure Legislative Oversight Committee this week.

An estimated 249 employees have been added to county payrolls in 2016 due to the system’s continuing lack of functionality and a federal mandate to transfer 280,000 individuals from the state’s old computer system into MNsure.

“The new MNsure system has posed a number of serious challenges that have caused a staggering amount of extra work for our staff and a frustrated customer base that we can offer little assistance to,” said Susan Rynda, Le Sueur County Human Services Director, in a service agreement document filed with the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Even simple data entry can turn into a time-consuming chore. Staff say the system’s software lacks the logic to automate some functions, forcing eligibility workers to often close down cases and reload them into METS.

“If instead writing out the word ‘road’ you put in ‘rd’, it will kick it out. It’s just godawful,” Dakota County Commissioner Holberg said. “There’s no private sector company that would pay a penny for what the government’s been paying for.”

While entering a new address for a client takes about a minute on the state’s mainframe system, the process consumes about eight minutes for each individual in a household on METS, according to Olmsted County Director of Family Support and Assistance Heidi Welsch.

“I use that as an example to describe the fact that the software just wasn’t designed to do the kind of case management functions that we need. That’s one of many things that are more complicated when we do them in METS. Some things are easier but most things are more complicated,” Welsch said. State IT experts claim a fix is on the way.

Even seemingly routine data transfers can backfire. In late September the Minnesota Department of Human Services acknowledged that a data mismatch has forced 45,000 Minnesotans to scramble to reapply in order to keep their state health exchange coverage.

“It comes down to the fact that MNsure has not been functioning the way it was promised to function. The website itself is years away from being functional in any way, shape or form and the state says to the counties, ‘you figure it out,’” said Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, Chair of the House State Government Finance Committee. Anderson authored a bill to reimburse counties for cost overruns due to the system’s inefficiencies.

“I am disheartened. The system does not meet our needs,” said Kathleen Herring, Financial Assistance Supervisor for Pennington County Human Services. “And as Minnesotans, we know better, we have experience doing better, and we need to do better for the Minnesotans we serve.”