Enrollment push helps MNsure sign up 169K Minnesotans by deadline

Community health workers offer assistance.
Community health workers offer assistance to those applying for health insurance with MNSure at Portico Healthnet in St. Paul, Minn. Monday, March 31, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

More than 169,000 Minnesotans enrolled in health coverage through the state's health insurance marketplace through the six-month open enrollment period that ended Monday.

About 60,000 people signed up in March alone.

March 26: MNsure hits enrollment goal; most opt for government program

Early on, faulty software and other problems turned the enrollment process into a frustrating ordeal for thousands of state residents.

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The latest tally shows MNsure has turned a corner and is now stable and successful, said Peter Benner, vice chairman of the agency's board.

"We exceeded our enrollment goal by 35,000 Minnesotans," Benner said. "I think when you look back at December, look back at January, the board itself was not quite sure how well we were going to do come March."

Gov. Mark Dayton, who once criticized the agency for its difficulties, said in a statement that MNsure has made major improvements to its website and customer service during the last three months.

"More work lies ahead to continue those improvements," Dayton said. "However, MNsure has now demonstrated its capacity to improve the lives of many thousands of Minnesotans by offering them access to better health care at more affordable costs."

Besides the people who enrolled in health plans, an additional 36,000 Minnesotans completed enrollment attempt forms that gave them an extension and allows them to avoid a tax penalty for lacking coverage as of today.

Of the total enrollments, about 28 percent were in commercial health plans. The remainder were in government-sponsored coverage such as Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare. By enrolling 47,000 people in private health plans, MNsure topped its goal for the open enrollment period. Of those people, 52 percent were women and 48 percent men.

Benner said the numbers reflect a team effort that included a variety of people helping consumers.

"It includes all those navigators. It includes all those brokers," he said. "It includes the health plan partners who've worked with us to make sure that people in fact can get enrolled and make their payments. It includes thousands of workers at Minnesota's counties."

But the higher enrollment numbers failed to convince some Republican state lawmakers that the insurance exchange is a success or that it has turned a corner.

State Sen. Michelle Benson, a member of MNsure's legislative oversight committee, said the agency has underlying structural problems that need a thorough review, including a look at how the agency handled government-sponsored coverage such as MinnesotaCare and Medical Assistance, or M.A.

"Just because they got good enrollment, doesn't mean those structural problems went away, said Benson, R-Ham Lake. "They've band-aided through M.A. enrollments via paper process and putting a lot of stress on the counties and we need to understand how to not make those mistakes again."

Of MNsure's about 170,000 enrollments more than one quarter applied manually on paper.

State Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, noted that MNsure had surpassed its goal of 135,000 enrollments but that it had set that goal after MNsure's rough rollout last fall.

"If you keep revising your goals downward long enough, eventually you're going to hit your goal," he said.

A looming question is whether MNsure achieved one of its primary goals: making it possible for people who lack insurance to find affordable coverage. Compared to other states, Minnesota's uninsured population is relatively small at about 9 percent but that amounts to between 400,000 and 500,000 Minnesotans.

University of Minnesota health economist Lynn Blewett said MNsure's enrollment tally is likely to move the state's numbers.

"It's definitely going to make a dent in our [uninsured] rate," Blewett said. " We'll just have to wait to do some of the analysis to see how much of a dent that will be."

It may be weeks or months before analysts determine just how many people who lacked insurance are now covered.

Insurers are already preparing for the 2015 enrollment, which starts Nov. 15.

Meanwhile, insurers will be tracking who puts in claims over the next few months. That's important, because if there are too many sicker, older people in the mix compared to younger people, premiums could rise.

But Scott Keefer, vice president of policy and legislative affairs for Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota, said age is less important than actual medical costs.

"And the truth will really be told whether there's balance or not when we start getting more claims experience, when people actually start going to the doctor or the hospital," he said.