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Can MNsure avoid repeat of deadline ‘nightmare’?

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ST. PAUL — When Minnesota launched its new health insurance exchange Oct. 1, the problems came quickly.

By late October, the error rate at the MNsure website peaked at 22 percent.

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In November, state officials started rerunning 30,000 applications because of a variety of problems, including inaccurate rulings about whether people qualified for financial assistance.

In December, the call center was overwhelmed, and people endured waits of more than two hours while trying to finalize coverage before a New Year’s Eve deadline.

The next big deadline for MNsure comes March 31, the date by which consumers must obtain health insurance or possibly face penalties under the federal Affordable Care Act. State officials say they’ve taken steps to make sure there won’t be a December flashback.

“The site is functioning better,” said Scott Leitz, the interim chief executive of MNsure. “I’m not going to say that everything has been solved, but it’s a much more functional system than it was.

“We’re better prepared to answer people’s questions when they do have problems,” Leitz added, “and prepared if all else fails to get them into coverage using more manual means.”

Health insurers that sell policies through MNsure agree that improvements have been made. Even so, the health exchange is falling far short of its original goals, said Marcus Merz, chief executive of PreferredOne, a Golden Valley-based insurance company that’s been the most popular choice of people buying commercial policies through MNsure.

“It’s working better only because MNsure has thrown bodies at it, and we’re throwing bodies at it,” Merz said. The process for individuals to sign up for coverage and for insurance companies to get information about enrollees is “still very manual, and it’s still very labor-intensive,” he said.

Of the overall experience thus far, Merz added: “It’s been a nightmare.”

Rocky launch

Minnesota launched MNsure last year to implement the federal health law, which requires almost all Americans to obtain health insurance by month’s end.

Those who don’t could face a tax penalty of either $95 or 1 percent of income, whichever amount is greater.

The deadline is important for another reason. Once it passes, most consumers in the market for individual health insurance policies won’t have another chance to buy coverage until an open enrollment period that starts Nov. 15. At that point, policies would take effect Jan. 1.

The restriction doesn’t apply to everyone, since people can still enroll in the state’s Medicaid and MinnesotaCare health insurance programs after March 31. There’s also a chance to buy individual health insurance policies after March 31 in the case of “life events,” such as the loss of job-based coverage or the birth of a child.

State officials, health insurance companies and the federal government have been pumping up messages about the March 31 deadline in recent weeks, with hundreds of outreach events scheduled across Minnesota. The goals are to boost lagging enrollment in commercial health plans through MNsure while also attracting younger and healthier consumers.

The launch of MNsure was chaotic and confusing, said Dannette Coleman, a senior vice president of Medica, a health insurance company based in Minnetonka.

One information technology problem that’s largely been addressed is the infamous “black hole,” where thousands of applications for coverage were lost in the system.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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