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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The staff at Minnesota's health exchange continue to work with contractors to troubleshoot technology issues with the system, as the first key deadline approaches for those who want to sign up for insurance beginning January 1.

The call center will remain open until 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 31, for those who've encountered problems creating accounts, entering personal income eligibility information or shopping for plans.

Tuesday is the deadline for people to purchase coverage beginning Jan. 1. Those who can wait until Feb. 1 for coverage have until Jan. 15 to enroll. March 31 is the deadline for those who wish to find coverage in order to avoid the tax penalty on income earned during 2014.

"If you currently a don't have insurance Jan. 1 is not a drop-dead date for you," MNsure Board chair Brian Beutner explained.

"Getting coverage on Feb. 1 is still an improvement from where you currently are today."

He said he expects that in the next three months of the open enrollment period more uninsured consumers will sign up, to avoid the tax penalty.

Scott Leitz, MNsure's acting CEO, told reporters Monday those who truly need health coverage beginning January 1 can contact a health insurance company or an insurance broker directly and buy a standard plan as a bridge until their applications make is through the MNsure system.

Once enrollees qualify for a plan through MNsure, they can migrate over to one of those plans, which may come with a discount or subsidy through the Affordable Care Act.

MNsure released a list of do's and don'ts that may make it easier for people to fend off some of the bugs that have made online sign-up process difficult.

"There is some stickiness when it comes to the eligibility section," Leitz said.

"So the contractors have been focusing on diagnosing where the challenges are, trying to bucket those, if you will, into various categories."

As of Sunday, 101,707 people had gone online and setup MNsure accounts, which is the first step toward getting coverage. So far 19,420 people have used MNsure to enroll in a qualified private health plan.

Another 21,051 have enrolled in Medical Assistance, which is Minnesota's version of Medicaid and is subsidized through Medicaid. An additional 12,708 have qualified for Minnesota Care, the state health plan for low income families that is subsidized through fees paid by medical providers.

Some Minnesotans continue to experience delays and be left on hold for long periods when they call the MNsure consumer assistance line, but that staff has been beefed up in recent weeks.

"What the consultants from General Mills and IBM found out when they came into the call center, was that the problem wasn't the capability of the call center, it was the length of the calls and the length of the questions coming in that really start to overwhelm that center," Leitz explained.

Dawn Shelton of St. Paul is one consumer who spoke to KARE Monday about her continued frustration getting through the online sign-up process. The templates were very picky about exactly how information such as her phone number was formatted.

She finally managed Monday night to create an account and get a user name and password. She completed the income eligibility phase, and picked a plan. But when she tried to submit her signature, the web interface rejected it and flashed a message that her signature didn't match her user name.

"I'll try again tomorrow," Shelton told KARE.

She's been uninsured since her husband was laid off and took a new job without health coverage. She said her husband is a veteran and can get health services through the VA.

But she's determined to get coverage for herself so she can take advantage of the preventative care aspects of the Affordable Care Act.

"It costs me a lot of money to go into the doctor, and then the bills are outrageous," Shelton said.

"And I need to be able to go in for mammograms and colonoscopies and things like that, like other people do, so I can keep my health."

Editor's Note: A day after Dawn spoke to KARE she received a call from a MNsure technician who walked her through the online enrollment, so she was able to up purchase private coverage at a discount effective January 1.

MNsure is contacting at least 2,000 individuals who found their applications were hung up midway through the application process.

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