MNsure to debut Tuesday afternoon

MNsure
MNsure Executive Director April Todd-Malmlov answers questions during a news conference about the marketplace's plans and rates Friday, Sept. 6, 2013 at the State Capitol in St. Paul. MNsure's website is scheduled to launch on Tuesday, but officials say it may not be available to the public until later in the afternoon.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Uninsured Minnesotans eager to check out health care coverage on Tuesday through MNsure, the state's new online insurance marketplace, may have to wait just a little bit longer.

The website is still scheduled to launch Tuesday, but MNsure officials say it may not be available to the public until later in the afternoon.

That's because MNsure will have to connect to an information hub run by the federal government to get up and running. That connection won't happen until about 7 a.m. Tuesday, state officials say, and it will require several hours from that point to prepare MNsure to go live.

Compared to exchanges around the rest of the country, MNsure is in "phenomenal shape," Gov. Mark Dayton said in a news conference Tuesday.

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"MNsure is ready to go," Dayton said. But it may "take a few hours to hook [MNsure] up to the federal system."

The federal database contains personal information needed determine someone's eligibility for government health care programs and federal subsidies that will be available to some people buying commercial insurance through MNsure.

MN.IT, the state's information technology agency, will be testing security measures between MNsure and the federal hub throughout the day tomorrow, MNsure Executive Director April Todd-Malmlov said.

SOME DELAYS

Todd-Malmlov said that most aspects of MNsure are expected to work Tuesday.

For instance, individuals will be able to compare plans sold on MNsure, set up an account and buy a plan, she said.

Todd-Malmlov said agency officials don't expect trouble determining eligibility for government programs, like Medical Assistance and Minnesota Care, or for federal subsidies.

But Todd-Malmlov said there would be delays in the part of the exchange aimed at small businesses that want to buy coverage for their employees. Businesses can pick plan options now, but employees won't be able to enroll until December.

One-on-one help for consumers won't be available until Wednesday because MNsure still needs to certify that designated helpers are ready, Todd-Malmlov said.

The categories of helpers include "navigators," "in-person-assisters," as well as insurance agents and brokers.

"We need to verify that training has been completed and that tests have been passed, background checks, also those going through as well as checking licensure checks with brokers with the department of commerce as well," Todd-Malmlov said. "So on Wednesday, as soon as individuals have passed those, there will be a rolling process to get up. We'll be updating that every day."

MNsure is also asking Native Americans to wait one week to enroll on MNsure because the system is having trouble processing some special provisions that apply only to tribal members.

CONNECTING TO INSURERS

The link to the federal data hub is just one of several connections MNsure needs to work correctly. The website, which is a massive $100 million information technology undertaking, also needs to collect personal information from a customer and transmit that information to the insurer the customer wants to enroll with.

Whether the six insurers offering plans on MNsure will receive that information electronically concerns Geoff Bartsh, vice president of government affairs for Medica, one of the companies that will be selling products on MNsure. If the electronic transmission fails, insurers may have to enter the information into their own systems manually.

At this point, MNsure is largely focused on making sure that its website is easy to use for consumers.

Participating insurance companies don't expect to receive their first batch of enrollment information from MNsure until Oct. 15.

Until that information is transferred without any problems, Medica has concerns, Bartsh said. It could cause confusion and delays for consumers.

"We don't want a customer going to MNsure, purchasing a product from Medica, calling up Medica a week later looking for their ID card or looking for information about their network and us not having any record of them purchasing a product," Bartsh said.

AFFECTS OF THE GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN

In southwestern Minnesota, Western Community Action Development Director Allan Bakke said he's feeling anxious about potential glitches with the MNsure website. He's wondering how many people will be seeking services on MNsure's opening day.

"It's those unknowns, the things that you don't know anything about, we're a little anxious about them," said Bakke, who is overseeing a grant from MNsure to help people find insurance through the site.

Earlier this month, Bakke's organization was among those that hadn't received MNsure training yet. Now, Bakke said enough of his staff has completed the training to help people with MNsure tomorrow.

Still, Bakke has a potentially bigger problem on his plate: a federal government shutdown brewing in Washington.

That's because his office gets federal dollars for Head Start, weatherization programs, and food shelf programs, among other things. If the federal government shuts down, so does funding for these programs, Bakke said. As a result, Bakke said he may need to send some of his staff home -- workers who would also be helping with MNsure outreach and enrollment.

White House officials say a federal shutdown won't affect the launch of MNsure or other state or federal exchanges, which are due to open tomorrow.

BROKERS AND NAVIGATORS DELAYED BY A DAY

MNsure's Todd-Malmlov said brokers and organizations that will help with MNsure enrollment won't be certified to do so by the time MNsure opens tomorrow. That's because MNsure is still certifying that they've completed their training and, in some cases, still processing background checks.

Todd-Malmlov said it's likely that many people will peruse the site, compare plans on their first visits, and then buy coverage later. She noted that open enrollment lasts until March of 2014.

That's also the expectation Ruby Lee, president of Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio. Her organization will help members of the Latino community sign up for MNsure, but she said that constituency needs more information first.

"It will be a slow start," Lee said. "For our communities... there is not a lot of awareness built. That's step one: communities need to be informed and educated about their choices."

And a slow start is a good thing, Lee says, because her team doesn't feel as prepared as they would like.

Members of her staff who have completed navigator training aren't certified yet because MNsure just made the materials available last week. Lee has just started hiring the additional workers she needs.

Bartsh, the Medica vice president, hopes MNsure glitches are manageable and aren't too obvious to consumers.

"If there's not a lot of news tomorrow, that's probably a good sign," he said.

MPR News reporter Elizabeth Stawicki contributed to this story

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