Kim Johnson hopes MNsure, the state's new health insurance marketplace, will help him find reasonably priced coverage for his 15 employees.
But when he sought help recently from a local agent certified as a MNsure "assister," the Hinckley, Minn., business owner was told to come back later. The agent couldn't help — MNsure hadn't given her access to a special broker-only website.
"I wouldn't say it was a dead end," Johnson said. "But it was kind of disappointing."
Insurance agents are key contacts for Minnesotans trying to navigate MNsure. They make up most of the 1,600 MNsure-certified helpers. Outside of MNSure's call center, agents have been the main source of help for people like Johnson since the insurance marketplace opened nearly two weeks ago.
Agents, however, say there's little they can do until MNsure gives them access to the broker site.
"We've got all kinds of people asking [about MNsure]," said Jeff Hess, a broker in St. Cloud, Minn. "But we can't do anything with it yet."
MNsure says the hold-up stems from the federal government's delay of a key security measure. Though it stands to slow enrollment in the exchange, MNsure officials say they aren't moving forward until they're sure personal information can be protected adequately.
For small businesses and their agents, MNsure says the situation should improve next week. A web service will allow agents to help small business owners like Johnson pick and choose plans for their employees.
But they won't be able to do the same for clients buying individual or family coverage.
A FEDERAL DELAY
MNsure intended to open the portal to brokers on Oct. 1, MNsure's first day open for business, Todd-Malmlov said.
But in August, MNsure got some bad news from the federal government. A federal service that will verify broker identities each time they enter the site wouldn't be ready on time.
It's a far more complicated security measure than a user name and password, Todd-Malmlov said. The extra level of protection is necessary because these online services will transmit sensitive personal information used to determine whether a client is eligible for tax credits or government programs, she added.
The federal government has no idea when the service will be ready, Todd-Malmlov said.
"We view security extremely seriously," she said. "We decided not to make that functionality available until there was a service available that would provide that level of security protection."
The big question is whether the federal security delay will push MNsure's enrollment below projections — a key metric to measure MNsure's success.
Todd-Malmlov said she hopes not.
SHORT TERM SOLUTIONS
Besides the agents, MNsure's also building a network of assisters from non-profits to medical clinics to enroll people in health insurance programs. Like the agents, though, the navigators and in-person assisters are limited now in the help they can provide.
Todd-Malmlov said she understands that the delay is going to make it harder for all MNsure assisters to enroll people.
In the meantime, MNsure is encouraging brokers and assisters to sit down with clients in person to complete the enrollment process.
That advice, though, is unrealistic for an industry that does so much business over the phone, said Hess. Without the portal "if someone called us, we can't log in and do a quote for them to see what plans work best."
While agents can't come up with an exact quote, they can, like anyone else, use the MNsure website to see what plans and prices are available based on a person's age, location, and type of coverage.
Some agents, however, say that's inadequate.
Agent David Baer many of his clients aren't skilled with computers, so they aren't comfortable setting up an account and reviewing their options on their own. Those clients want an agent's expertise and assistance, said Baer, who works out of Detroit Lakes, Minn.
He's seen a lot of interest in MNsure. But other than giving clients some general knowledge of MNsure, "I can't really help them at this point," Baer said. "My hands are kind of tied...I can't go online and say 'here, I''ll get you all signed up.'"