KSTP reports that MNsure chief April Todd-Malmlov went on vacation in Costa Rica in November with Minnesota Medicaid Director James Golden.
The two-week trip raised eyebrows for two reasons. One, critics questioned the timing, given that MNsure was still scrambling to fix glitches and rollout problems with the recently launched online health insurance marketplace, mnsure.org.
And two, KSTP reports that Todd-Malmlov was vacationing with a key state Medicaid official, which critics say raises conflict-of-interest questions because, as KSTP notes, MNsure and Medicaid are "intimately intertwined." Many people who enroll for insurance through MNsure end up enrolled for publicly subsidized health insurance, including Medicaid.
But MNsure told KSTP there was no conflict of interest: "There is no reporting relationship between them. Mr. Golden is a DHS employee, Ms. Todd-Malmlov works for MNsure."
KSTP's story does not include comment from Todd-Malmlov or Golden.
A MNsure spokeswoman told Watchdog.org that Todd-Malmlov had been in contact with MNsure officials daily during her vacation. “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,” Jenni Bowring-McDonough said. “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.”
A Minnesota Department of Human Services statement to KSTP also noted that during his vacation, Golden was in touch with work colleagues and MNsure officials.
MNsure, like many other state-run insurance exchanges, has had a smoother rollout since its Oct. 1 launch than the troubled federal site. But MNsure has had its share of fits and starts. Among the most recent, during the time that Todd-Malmlov was gone, state and county officials scrambled to double-check up to 40,000 applications to determine whether people were incorrectly denied premium subsidies or coverage on public programs, the Star Tribune reported.
The Costa Rica vacations amount to bad politics and bad public relations for MNsure, which has been dogged by bad publicity, University of Minnesota political analyst Larry Jacobs told KSTP: "The public relations gaffe of going to the tropics during a difficult period in health reform in Minnesota is now compounded by questions about the difficulties of having two people being in a relationship in charge of important components of health reform."
Gov. Mark Dayton last week defended Todd-Malmlov’s right to take a pre-scheduled vacation, also noting that she reports to MNsure's board, not to him. Dayton critics howled. “While Governor Dayton is defending MNsure’s executive director taking a tropical vacation amid MNsure’s botched launch, hardworking Minnesotans have been out in the cold, uncertain if they actually have health coverage for their families," House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said.