Updated: 12/17/2013 4:39 PM
Created: 12/15/2013 7:21 PM KSTP.com
By: Stephen Tellier
Last week, 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS learned the head of MNsure took an international vacation as the healthcare exchange website was dealing with several problems. Now, who she was with is raising new questions.
Sources tell 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that the head of Minnesota's Medicaid program was vacationing with the director of MNsure in Costa Rica at the end of November. MNsure said there's no conflict of interest, but critics said it's yet another issue of compromised public trust.
Medicaid and MNsure are intimately intertwined, with billions of taxpayer dollars overlapping between the two programs. For eight business days at the end of November -- during a crucial time for the heathcare exchange -- April Todd-Malmlov, the director of MNsure, and Jim Golden, Minnesota's Medicaid director, were on vacation together in Costa Rica.
"This is bad politics, in addition to being bad public relations for Mnsure," said University of Minnesota political analyst Larry Jacobs.
The Minnesota Department of Human Services provided us with this statement on Sunday, which stated, "While Mr. Golden plays an important role with MNsure regarding public programs, ultimate authority and responsibility resides further up in the organization. During his absence there were senior officials deeply involved in the project, including an assistant commissioner, deputy commissioner and commissioner. While he was away Mr. Golden was in regular contact with them and MNsure."
But an internal DHS email sent in October stated Golden, "will continue to lead the agency's efforts to implement MNsure, which is critical to our agency's mission," and called him "instrumental" in the MNsure launch.
As for the vacation sources said he took with Todd-Malmlov, MNsure said, "There is no conflict of interest. There is no reporting relationship between them. Mr. Golden is a DHS employee, Ms. Todd-Malmlov works for MNsure."
"One of the big challenges for MNsure is to win over the public trust," Jacobs said.
Jacobs said this situation makes that job harder.
"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," Jacobs said.
On Sunday, Gov. Dayton's office referred us to comments the governor made last week on the MNsure director's vacation. At that time, the governor defended Todd-Malmlov's right to take a vacation when she chooses, and told the media she reports not to him, but to the MNsure board.
But some Minnesotans who struggled with the MNsure website while the director was out of the country said they're surprised she took a vacation at that time.