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MNsure expects smoother enrollment

ST. PAUL — MNsure leaders promise Minnesotans will have an easier time signing up for health insurance on its website when enrollment begins next month.

“My eyes are fully focused on improving the consumer experience,” interim MNsure CEO Allison O’Toole said Thursday to a legislative committee charged with overseeing the online health insurance sales system.

Security enhancements have been applied to the MNsure computer system, she said. More human helpers and easier-to-use computer systems also are ready for enrollment for 2016 health insurance, she added.

“We have learned a lot of important lessons the last two years,” O’Toole said, referring back to the disastrous start MNsure experienced in 2013.

She said MNsure has increased its contacts with people who use the system, including county workers, to find ways to improve the process. Adding people to help Minnesotans who want to buy health insurance is one of the focuses.

“We have made real progress that Minnesotans will see in open enrollment,” O’Toole said.

While MNsure promised an improvement, the biggest problem the House-Senate committee members expressed was cost of insurance.

The Commerce Department earlier announced policies will cost 14 percent to 49 percent more next year than this year, before subsidies kick in.

“There will be many cases in which people will be paying less per month than they are currently paying,” O’Toole said, because more insurance buyers will get bigger government subsidies.

O’Toole said she does not know how many people will pay less next year. “We are looking into it.”

Committee Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston, said that while some of the 300,000 who use MNsure will get premium breaks, they are not available to another 200,000 who buy directly from insurance companies.

“There are a lot of folks not getting the subsidy and they are getting smoked.” Davids said.

Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman has suggested a series of steps the state could take to reduce or eliminate premium increases. The committee barely scratched the surface of that issue, but it is expected to be a topic during the legislative session that begins next March.

People from both parties said they are not happy with the 2016 rate increase.

“The level of rate increases was of great concern,” the Commerce Department’s Peter Brickwedde said.

While Republicans have blamed MNsure as part of the reason for rate increases and called for its elimination, Brickwedde said switching to a federal health insurance exchange would not change how rates are approved. He said the Commerce Department still would go through the same rate approval process it does now.

“The rates were justified, but I don’t like them,” said Davids, who has sold insurance 33 years.

Sen. Tony Lourey, D-Kerrick, said state officials need to decide whether they need to take action to regulate health-care costs. Those high costs are driving high insurance rates, Lourey and others on the committee said.

The committee meeting lacked most of the normal partisan argument about MNsure and the federal Affordable Care Act.

“We are in a new era of leadership at MNsure,” said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, one of the strongest MNsure critics. “They are not going to pull the wool over our eyes.”

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.