As Monday's deadline to enroll in private health insurance through the state's online insurance website approaches, people who help consumers with the application process say business is booming.
Aided by a marketing campaign from MNsure, the agency that runs the website, so-called "navigators" are seeing more visits from people who want to have insurance on Jan. 1.
An ad that features an uninsured mom and dad worrying about their child's fever convinced 29-year-old Duke Mochama to obtain insurance.
"I said, 'Man, I need to do something,'" recalled Mochama, a Kenyan who arrived in Minnesota just over a year ago. "You never know. The next minute you might be sick."
Mochama, who has found temporary work as a machine operator, is a permanent resident of the United States. After seeing the ad he went to MNsure's website but found all of the choices overwhelming.
"I tried to look through the plans and the cost but I was kind of not really understanding it very much," he said.
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So Mochama made an appointment with someone who could help. He met his "navigator" David Winkworth at a community center in east St. Paul and said he wanted a plan he could afford.
After they set up Mochama's account, they discovered that his income qualifies him for a monthly premium subsidy of $19.
They settled on a HealthPartners plan with a $2,500 deductible that will cost Mochama $138 a month.
Mochama, who is young and relatively healthy, is the kind of person MNsure needs to keep the economics of the exchange in good shape. He'll pay premiums but probably won't require much expensive care.
In general the more people MNsure can attract, the more affordable and more stable insurance prices on the exchange will be, said Julie Brunner, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Health Plans.
"The more people you have in the insurance pool, the larger you spread the risk," Brunner said. "And if your pool is larger you have an opportunity to keep those rates from fluctuating so wildly."
Brunner will be watching closely to see whether MNsure receives the surge in enrollments it is hoping for between now and Monday's deadline.
So will MNsure CEO Scott Leitz, who notes that about 40 percent of the agency's budget comes a 3.5 percent surcharge it imposes on commercial plan premiums.
That means MNsure's bottom line depends on enough people enrolling in private health plans, he said.
"It is a funding source for ensuring that we still have this marketplace available to people to get the affordable coverage," Leitz said.
MNsure recently slashed the agency's private insurance enrollment estimate for next year by a third to 67,000.
If enrollment falls short of that reduced target MNsure could look to the Minnesota Department of Human Services for more funding. DHS officials already are trying to determine whether they will have to ask the Legislature for more taxpayer money to cover the Department's financial obligations to MNsure. Getting the Republican-controlled House to go along with such a request could be difficult.
Leitz said after Monday's deadline he'll have a better idea about the budget.
"We'll certainly have some data that's going to give us a sense of how close to on track we are, but that's not going to be the end of the story," he said.
He points out open enrollment continues through Feb. 15, when the vast majority of Americans are required by law to be enrolled in a health plan or face a tax penalty.
To ensure as many people enroll as possible, MNsure is extending its call center hours through the weekend and into Monday night.