Rule change means more Minnesotans will receive health insurance tax credits

Minnesotans who avoided the state's troubled health insurance website and bought policies directly from insurers may still receive qualifying premium tax credits.

MNsure officials say they're working with the federal government, health plans, and the state Department of Human Services to ensure that consumers who lost out on the credits because they couldn't sign up for coverage through the MNsure website will still receive the discounts.

"We certainly want to take advantage of an opportunity to make sure that we bring fairness to Minnesotans," said MNsure interim CEO, Scott Leitz "and make sure they're able to access the credits they otherwise would've been eligible for."

"I guarantee that my administration will do everything possible to provide Minnesotans with all the federal tax credits for which they are eligible," Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement.

Until last week, the Obama Administration required consumers to use the insurance exchanges to receive tax credits. However, because of technical glitches surrounding many of the exchange websites, the administration is allowing states with problem websites to provide the premium discounts to consumers who bought directly from insurers. It's unclear how many Minnesotans will be eligible for the retroactive premium discounts.

Meanwhile, federal officials appear to be holding firm on the March 31 deadline for most Americans to obtain health insurance or face a financial penalty of $95, or 1 percent of household income, whichever is greater.

In Minnesota, that means consumers who buy policies on the individual market, in or outside of the MNsure system rather than through an employer, must sign up and pay their first month's premium by March 31. For Minnesotans who wait until the last few days in March, however, coverage won't begin until May 1.

Minnesotans who need coverage to start April 1, have until March 15 to sign up and pay.

Some consumers may think that if they don't meet this month's deadline to buy health insurance, they can wait until next month, a familiar pattern.

But there is no "next month" this time around.

Consumers who are not covered by an exception are out luck and cannot enroll again for coverage until Nov. 15 for coverage that may not start until Jan. 1, 2015.

Those who will be able to obtain coverage after March 31 fall under the following exceptions: Minnesotans who qualify for government health coverage such as Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare, or those buying coverage on the individual market who experience a so-called "life event," such as marriage, divorce, job loss or the birth of a child.

Meanwhile MNsure reports that more than 113,000 Minnesotans have enrolled through the site since October; about two thirds have qualified for government health coverage.

MNsure officials acknowledged that the site's payment system confused consumers. To streamline that process, there are now only two ways to buy coverage after signing up through MNsure: pay directly on the website or wait for a bill from the insurer.

The MNsure site will undergo a test in the next few weeks that will likely rival or surpass the deluge of consumers last December, when many consumers were clamoring to obtain health coverage for Jan. 1. The MNsure website frustrated many consumers then with technical problems and an understaffed call center, which led to hour-long waits on hold.

MNsure's interim CEO, Scott Leitz, said he's cognizant of those problems but the agency has learned from that experience. He said MNsure has added 100 more people to answer calls at the contact center and users should now encounter fewer errors while on the site.

"The quickest way for people to enroll is through the website," he said. "It's stable and it's in much better shape than it was in the fall and it's the best place for people to go."

In the event of website problems, Leitz said MNsure workers will provide alternate ways to obtain insurance. In addition, MNsure will have over 650 places set up throughout Minnesota this month where people can sign up in person with so-called navigators, people who can help individual consumers enroll in coverage.

Enrollment guide from MNsure

Still, the rush to meet the March 31 deadline is expected to rival if not surpass MNsure's crush of web traffic from last December as procrastinators rush to not only sign up for coverage but also avoid the federal health care law's financial penalty.

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