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As of December 27, more than 53,000 Minnesotans had made arrangements to receive coverage through MNsure.

MNsure prepares for 2014 debut

Scott Leitz became interim MNsure chief on Dec. 17, replacing April Todd-Malmlov. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Scott Leitz became interim MNsure chief on Dec. 17, replacing April Todd-Malmlov. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

MNsure officials struck a confident note less than 48 hours before the debut of insurance plans sold on the insurance exchange, citing a late surge in consumer interest and major progress on technological problems that had vexed the new exchange website. On a Monday afternoon conference call meeting, MNsure Board members and agency staffers discussed recent changes intended to improve the agency’s ability to guarantee health insurance coverage beginning on the first day of 2014.

As of December 27, more than 53,000 Minnesotans had made arrangements to receive coverage through MNsure. That’s more than double the number of consumers who had registered for insurance through November. The most significant gains were made among individual consumers buying private insurance, or “qualified health plans” (QHP). More than 19,000 private insurance plans have been sold through MNsure so far, a huge increase over the 4,478 QHPs sold during October and November. That trend tracks closely with earlier predictions from consumer research experts and economists, who said many people would probably wait until the deadline approached before enrolling in a plan.

Minnesota’s enrollment deadline has been pushed back to the latest possible hour: Consumers who register for insurance before midnight on Tuesday will be covered as of Wednesday morning, officials said. Those plans will remain in effect as long as the customer makes an initial payment by January 10.

Another 12,708 people are set to receive coverage under MinnesotaCare, and more than 21,000 will be covered through Medical Assistance, the state’s Medicaid program.

Scott Leitz, interim CEO of MNsure following the sudden resignation of former executive director April Todd-Malmlov, credited insurance companies for their flexibility on moving deadlines back. An assistant commissioner with the Department of Health, Leitz took over the top position at the state exchange on an interim basis on December 17. During Monday’s meeting, he told board members he and the MNsure staff had dedicated the previous two weeks to seeing that as many Minnesotans as possible were able to access the new system and register using the website.

Software consultants from IBM have been working in Minnesota during the latter half of December to help MNsure deal with delays and malfunctions that had frustrated website visitors, and Leitz said progress had been made on that front.

“I think it’s fair to say there is still work to be done,” Leitz said. He added: “Not everybody’s having a perfect experience yet.”

Leitz also highlighted steps made to alleviate the prolonged wait times seen on the MNsure call center phone lines, which had led to negative press coverage and criticism from both partisan opponents and Gov. Mark Dayton. The average delay before reaching a call center employee is now 15 minutes, down from the November average of roughly an hour. On that topic, Leitz thanked board member Tom Forsythe, a vice president at General Mills, for bringing in call center experts from that corporation to advise MNsure’s team.

Leitz hoped to continue whittling down the wait times, saying the 15-minute average is not an “acceptable level.”

MNsure Board chairman Brian Beutner said he was pleased to see that, at least in recent weeks, most new accounts created on the MNsure site seemed to be leading directly to the purchase of insurance. In total, about 102,000 individual accounts have been opened on the site, and more than 72,000 applications have been completed.

Forsythe agreed that people who stopped their applications at the midway point may have merely been shopping, or curious about the system, but said he was “very concerned” about the possibility that website issues were the cause of some consumers changing their minds.

“It might be that they stopped of their own accord, but perhaps not,” Forsythe said.

For those who have failed to register due to technical glitches and need coverage in January, MNsure is now encouraging some consumers to seek insurance outside the exchange and return to MNsure to purchase insurance early next year. Under the “individual mandate” clause, Americans have until March 31, 2014 to register for insurance in order to avoid paying a penalty of $95 during the first year.

Minnesota is one of 16 states that opted to design and administer their own insurance exchanges, a major element of implementing the federal Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Some states chose to control some aspects of their exchange and defer to the federal government on others, while 19 states have chosen to play no role in their exchanges, leaving the entire process up to federal agencies.

At Dayton’s direction, the state began laying the groundwork for its own exchange in early 2011. Todd-Malmlov led the process for more than two years, helping to secure upwards of $150 million in federal grants for staffing and technological infrastructure. She resigned in mid-December following news reports that she took a vacation to Costa Rica in November, while the exchange was still dogged by problems that had prevented some consumers from accessing the site.

During Monday’s meeting, Beutner praised Leitz’s efforts since taking the helm.

“We could not have found a better person for this job, and I think you’ve already made some great contributions,” he told Leitz.

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