ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP/WCCO) — The call center for Minnesota’s online health insurance marketplace strained Monday under a crush of people trying to beat the midnight Monday deadline for open enrollment, while residents lined up to take advantage of locations offering in-person help.
MNsure said its call center logged about 17,000 calls by 4 p.m. Monday, taxing the phone system and preventing some people from getting through to agents. The average wait time was 20 minutes. The call volume was about four times that seen on Dec. 31, an earlier enrollment deadline for coverage that took effect Jan. 1.
Minnesota is one of 14 states plus Washington, D.C., that chose to run their own exchanges rather than using the federal system.
People who couldn’t get through or encountered difficulty signing up online were urged to fill out an enrollment attempt form on MNsure’s website so an agent could contact them later to complete the enrollment process. Those who missed the 11:59 p.m. CDT deadline but made a good-faith effort to enroll were being allowed more time and to escape the federal tax penalty.
If people don’t enroll by midnight, they are encouraged to fill out this form before 11:59 p.m. It puts them in line to avoid penalty.
Shawne Jones, 43, of Maplewood, was among the last-minute shoppers lining up at the Ramsey County Government Center for help from Portico Healthnet, a nonprofit that provides “navigators” to help guide people through the enrollment process.
“Time just got away from me,” said Jones, a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, who said his previous insurance company dropped him in January and that he needed help sorting out his options. He said he decided after looking at MNsure’s website not to attempt enrolling on his own.
“It was just a little confusing. So I thought it’d be better if I came down, eventually, and I’d be able to get help on the spot,” he said.
Jones was among Minnesota residents, speaking several languages, who stopped at Portico’s desk for forms to start the process of shopping for competing private insurance plans or enrolling in the public Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare programs for low-income people.
“It’s been really busy all day,” said Tina Curry, Ramsey County’s division director for financial assistance services, who said the navigators told her MNsure’s system seemed to be running slower than normal because of the demand.
More than 152,000 people had enrolled for coverage as of Friday. The exchange did not plan to issue updated figures until Tuesday. MNsure Interim Chief Executive Scott Leitz also said he doesn’t expect to have a tally until sometime in April on how many of the 400,000 previously uninsured Minnesotans have enrolled. About 60 percent of the state’s uninsured were eligible for public programs, he said.
Before MNsure’s call center started reaching capacity, Leitz urged people “not to wait to enroll. The longer you wait, the more challenged the system might become.”
Speaking to reporters at MNsure headquarters, Leitz said fixes to the system and added capacity since a troubled launch last Oct. 1 made him confident that it could handle the final surge, though he acknowledged temporary slowdowns were likely. The call center would remain staffed through midnight, he said.
Monday was the last day for most people to sign up for private insurance plans before the next open enrollment period this fall. However, the state’s human services commissioner, Lucinda Jesson, noted that people eligible for Medical Assistance, the state’s version of Medicaid, and MinnesotaCare, a program for the working poor, can enroll throughout the year. People who thought they were ineligible for those programs or couldn’t afford the premiums should check again because the rules have changed, she said.
“Every day you wait to enroll is a day you don’t have health insurance. It’s a day you risk medical bankruptcy with large bills, or you’re not getting your kids the preventive care they need,” Jesson said.
On the other hand, critics of MNsure say the it has fallen short of its projections for signing up younger and middle income Minnesotans for private health insurance plans.
And that’s a problem going forward because a fee on private plans is one of MNsure’s main funding mechanisms.
“Unless they fundamentally restructure MNsure, taxpayers are going to have pay for it either at the state level or they are going to have to ask for some federal help,” said Sen. Michelle Benson of (R- District 31).
For this year, MNsure is balancing their books with federal grants. Critics warn those federal grants may not be around in 2016
Leitz says MNsure expects the numbers of both younger people and middle income people signing up to swell, especially on Monday.
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