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As deadline passes, MNsure exceeds sign-up goal

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ST. PAUL -- More than 169,200 Minnesotans signed up for health insurance through the online marketplace MNsure by a Monday deadline — roughly 35,000 more than its enrollment goal.

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MNsure officials touted the preliminary enrollment numbers as a major turnaround for the program, whose launch was plagued by website glitches and a low pace of sign-ups. About 35 percent of all enrollments took place in March as the state made a final push to ratchet up awareness.

“We put the right leadership in place; we put the right infrastructure in place,” said MNsure board of directors Vice Chair Peter Benner. “And we exceeded our expectations.”

The enrollment numbers will continue to go up in April as MNsure works with people who attempted unsuccessfully to apply or who still are awaiting a decision on their eligibility.

More than 36,000 people have filled out an online “enrollment attempt form” in a bid to avoid the tax penalty for missing Monday’s deadline. But officials did not know Tuesday how many later managed to sign up.

Of the total enrollees, about 47,000 signed up for a private coverage plan, 34,200 for MinnesotaCare and almost 88,000 for Medical Assistance. Republican critics of MNsure seized on the relatively small portion of commercial plan enrollees in voicing continued skepticism of the program.

The marketplace saw a last-minute uptick in enrollments by younger, presumably healthier people, or “young invincibles.” Those ages 19 to 34 made up almost a quarter of the final numbers — a portion that interim CEO Scott Leitz said MNsure hopes to increase.

Robust enrollments by young people and in private plans are key for MNsure’s financial stability. Starting next year, the exchange will fund its operations by withholding up to 3.5 percent of private plan premiums. Early data had shown sign-ups lagging in both categories.

MNsure officials said they would have numbers later in April on how many of the state’s 400,000 uninsured signed up for coverage.

“MNsure has made major improvements in its functionality and customer service during the past three months,” said Gov. Mark Dayton in a statement hailing the numbers. “More work lies ahead to continue those improvements.”

Republicans in the state Legislature criticized the state’s congratulatory take on the preliminary data. Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, pointed to a best-case scenario the DFL-controlled Legislature spelled out last year, under which 270,000 Minnesotans would have enrolled in commercial plans alone in 2014. MNsure officials have taken pains to distinguish between several legislative scenarios and the goals set by the exchange’s own board.

Davids also noted a congressional inquiry into the rollout of MNsure and health insurance exchanges in other states. Leitz is testifying in front of a U.S. House panel Thursday.

“Most disappointing is the Dayton administration publicly hailing their efforts a ‘success’ when in reality they have failed to live up to the promises they made to Minnesotans and have done nothing this legislative session to correct their new state agency’s course,” said Davids, the Republican lead on the state House Taxes Committee, in a statement.

State GOP leaders have also scheduled a news conference today to discuss their ongoing concerns about MNsure.

Julie Brunner, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Health Plans, which represents nonprofit insurers, said she was heartened by the numbers. The council had previously voiced concern about the sizable portion of enrollees in publicly funded programs.

But Brunner pointed to data showing 60 percent of Minnesota’s uninsured qualify for those programs. And she noted MinnesotaCare, the state’s program for low-income residents, captures many people who would have landed on private plans in other states.

Also, in part because of issues with the MNsure website, many Minnesotans went directly to private providers to purchase coverage. The council doesn’t have total numbers yet, but its members reported surges in call center activity on the eve of both Monday’s and an earlier December deadline.

Brunner said the final demographics of enrollees — such as the young invincibles — look better than earlier numbers.

“We had significant concerns about not getting some of those younger folks,” she said. “I’m pleased that the distribution is as wide as it is.”

MNsure had a brisk final Monday as thousands of Minnesotans rushed to catch a midnight deadline and avoid tax penalties for foregoing health insurance. The marketplace’s website experienced slowdowns, which led some would-be enrollees to turn to paper applications at in-person help centers.

Officials said Minnesotans will not face a tax penalty for missing the deadline as long as they made a good-faith effort to enroll. The tax penalty is $95 or 1 percent of one’s annual income, whichever is larger.

MNsure call centers fielded 28,000 calls throughout the day, officials said. The average wait was about a half-hour. MNsure officials said a federal online hub that verifies eligibility for publicly funded coverage was the main culprit for the web site issues Monday.

“We stayed up the whole time during this massive crush of people that came in yesterday,” Leitz said.

The state made a major enrollment push in March. In hopes of reaching more young people, it held enrollment events on college campuses, in libraries and even in bars and breweries. MNsure also enlisted Oscar-nominated Somali-born actor Barkhad Abdi as a spokesman.

For most people, the next opportunity to sign up for a private plan is Nov. 15. Minnesotans can continue to enroll in the Medicaid or MinnesotaCare programs for low-income people after Monday. American Indian tribe members and people who undergo changes such as job loss or divorce also will be able to sign up for private coverage between enrollment windows.

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

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