ST. PAUL, Minn. - As the MNsure health exchange heads into its final enrollment push, ahead of the March 31 deadline for taxpayers to avoid to avoid a federal tax penalty, the director feels good about the agency's turnaround.

"The staff are enormously capable and excellent at MNsure and they have done great work over the course of the past several months to really improve the process, improve the system," interim CEO Scott Leitz told reporters Friday in a joint press conference with Gov. Mark Dayton.

Midnight on March 31 is the deadline for people to enroll in private plans for calendar year 2014 and fend off a federal tax penalty for the 2014 tax year, known as the individual mandate. Those who are still logged in when the cut-off point hits will be allowed to continue enrollment.

Those who go to the MNsure dot org website this weekend can also fill out an Enrollment Attempt form, letting the agency know they tried to sign up for care but ran into technical glitches or other hangups. It's a recognition of the troubles with MNsure's online sign-up process, especially early on, and long waits for those who sough help by telephone at the MNsure call center.

"Filling this form tells MnSure that you're in line, and will allow us to contact you to complete your enrollment. It's sort of like being in line to vote when the polls close," Leitz remarked.

He said small businesses are not bound by the March 31 deadline, nor are those individuals who qualify for public health plans or Native Americans. They can enroll year around.

Enrollment stats

Leitz said that so far 152,000 people have enrolled in health plans for 2014 using MNsure as a portable. Of those roughly 42,000 have purchased private coverage, some of them using discounts available through the Affordable Care Act.

A much larger number, 110,000 people, have used MNsure to enroll in subsidized plans such as Minnesota Care and Medicaid. The question some ask is how many of the people were already in the system, versus uninsured consumers when the year began.

"We think that most of the people who are enrolling in the public health insurance programs are coming in for the first time in the system," Leitz said, noting that many of those people weren't aware they qualified for public plans until they went onto MNsure's web site and checked their income eligibility.

He said roughly 21 of those who've enrolled in health coverage through MNsure are in that highly coveted youthful demographic, the people with lower medical costs on average who are needed to even out the risk pool. He said MNsure had had many events trying to reach those so-called "invincibles" who don't think they'll need health care until they do.

Leitz said it will take more time for the agency's staff to track what percentage of the previously uninsured people -- an numbered estimated at 400,000 by the MN Dept of Health -- gained health coverage via MNsure.

Congressional Hearing

Leitz is one of several state health exchange directors who have been summoned to Washington DC to testify before a Congressional committee about the MnSURE roll-out issues.

Republican Congressman Darryl Issa has scheduled a Thursday hearing of a subcommittee of the House Oversight and Reform Committee to delve into whether security testing done by state health exchanges last fall was adequate.

But the session is likely to touch on other issues surrounding the Affordable Care Act, based on the official title of hearing, "Examining ObamaCare's problem-filled state exchange," found in the invitation that Leitz received.

Gov. Dayton said he has not seen a copy of a letter Issa's committee sent to him and several other Democratic governors seeking more information about their state health exchanges.

Political debate

Gov. Dayton said he felt MNsure's functionality had progressed quite a bit since the last big deadline, December 31, when wait times in the call center averaged more than an hour and stories of frustrated people being kicked off the website were much more common.

"It's not perfect yet, but it's vastly improved," Dayton said.

"The stories of those who've saved hundreds, and even thousands of dollars, both individual and small employers is really heart-warming, because that's the whole point of the Affordable Care Act and MNsure," he said.

Republican opponents continue to hammer away at MNsure and the ACA.

"I haven't heard too many of those heart warming stories," Rep. Peg Scott of Andover told reporters in a briefing that immediately followed the MNsure event in the governor's office.

"I've heard stories of people getting kicked off their insurance, no longer being covered being covered by the insurance they had."

Senator Michelle Benson of Ham Lake said minimum coverage levels required by the ACA are forcing some to buy more expensive policies than they did before.

"I think individuals are capable of deciding if their coverage is better and if it's a good value for the money their families are being compelled to spend."