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Don’t delay on health insurance, MNsure CEO urges

DULUTH, Minn. -- There's money on the table, and time is running out to pick it up. That was the message that brought Allison O'Toole, CEO of MNsure, to Duluth on Tuesday for a news conference to encourage Minnesotans to get their health insuranc...

DULUTH, Minn. - There’s money on the table, and time is running out to pick it up.

That was the message that brought Allison O’Toole, CEO of MNsure, to Duluth on Tuesday for a news conference to encourage Minnesotans to get their health insurance for 2017 during open enrollment.

O’Toole was talking about federal tax credits available to “completely or significantly offset” skyrocketing premium increases this year. In the past, she said, many Minnesotans who qualified missed the chance.

“Last year, we know about 100,000 Minnesotans passed up these tax credits and left money on the table,” O’Toole said in the offices of Generations Health Care Initiatives, which spearheads enrollment efforts in Northeastern Minnesota.

“They effectively walked by thousands of dollars, potentially $8,000 per year, on average, in St. Louis County,” she added.  

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The credits are available for singles with incomes up to $47,000 and for a family of four with income up to $97,000, she said.

Statewide, the average tax credit is just over $600 per month, O’Toole said. But it’s higher in Northeastern Minnesota - $669 per month in St. Louis County, $717 per month in Lake County, just over $730 per month in Carlton and Cook counties and $762 per month in Itasca County.

The tax credits are available only through MNsure, O’Toole said.

Although open enrollment continues until Jan. 31, the deadline is Thursday for coverage to begin by Jan. 1, O’Toole said.

Moreover, because some insurers capped the number of enrollees they’ll accept, choices are already more limited than they were in the beginning, O’Toole said. Medica “has capped out already,” she said.

UCare, one of the two insurers with plans available in Duluth, has an enrollment cap, said Megan Halena, program director for Generations. The other plan, Blue Plus, has no cap - but while UCare works with both Essentia Health and St. Luke’s, Blue Plus works only with St. Luke’s. “So particularly if you’re doctoring with Essentia, you want to shop now,” she said.

The fate of Minnesotans whose income is above the tax credit lines as they try to budget for much higher health insurance premiums has prompted efforts for a fix via a special session of the Legislature.

“It is a very real problem,” Halena said. “We are seeing people who see the cost as prohibitive.

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When breaking over that limit it’s very distressing for people, and there needs to be a solution.”

Peter Nelson, of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank, said in a phone interview that he agrees “initial relief” is needed for Minnesotans but said reforms are needed to reduce the cost of private health insurance.

One thing the state needs to do, he said, is put safeguards in place so that people can’t “game the system” by falsely claiming a “life change” - such as marriage, divorce or loss of job - outside of the open enrollment season. That enables them to avoid paying for health insurance until they need it, and it passes on the cost to everyone else.

Insurers have been complaining that gaming takes place, Nelson said.

“We just have anecdotal evidence right now,” he said. “We don’t know how much of a problem that is.”

O’Toole said it isn’t a problem.

“We don’t have evidence that it’s an issue here in Minnesota,” she said. “It’s easy to say people are gaming the system, but where are the facts?”

Halena said “systematic checking” takes place during the year to make sure reported information matches information in state and federal data.

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MNsure enrollment started strong this year, with 43,000 signed up for private coverage so far, O’Toole said. That’s about triple the number at the same time last year. In the program’s fourth year “people are starting to know what to do,” she said.

Related Topics: HEALTH
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