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Interest in MNSure higher than anticipated

WILLMAR — As the board members of Minnesota’s new health insurance exchange prepared for its launch on Oct. 1, one of the questions on their minds was: If we create it, will people come?

By late last week, they had an answer. As of Friday, 10,000 users had registered an account with the site, and ongoing tracking shows the numbers continue to climb.

It was a confirmation that Minnesotans are looking for information about affordable health insurance, says Lucinda Jesson, Minnesota Commissioner of Human Services and a member of the MNSure board of directors.

“We’ve had a lot more interest, especially in the first few weeks, than we anticipated,” she said.

Jesson was in Willmar this week to speak at the state conference of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless and to visit with the media about the MNSure rollout.

The online health insurance exchange, the result of the federal Affordable Care Act, creates a marketplace for consumers to compare prices and products and, if they’re eligible, to enroll in an insurance plan and apply for tax credits to offset the premium.

Over time, the online exchange is expected to reduce the number of uninsured Minnesotans by giving them access to health care coverage they likely would not otherwise have had.

Like the websites in most other states that launched health insurance exchanges this month, Minnesota’s exchange has had its share of glitches.

“Everyone has had some. The feds have had the most of all,” Jesson said.

One area that has been a problem for Minnesota users is income and ID verification, a function that uses a federal hub that hasn’t been working well, she noted. “The first week was a challenge.”

On the other hand, the Minnesota exchange is the only one that has not crashed yet — and unlike those in many states, it does not require consumers to create an account in order to browse the site, she said.

State officials expect the largest group to obtain health coverage through the exchange will be those eligible for Medicaid or MinnesotaCare.

Medicaid is the joint federal and state program for people with low incomes. MinnesotaCare is the subsidized health insurance plan for people who cannot afford private insurance but make too much to qualify for other programs.

Many people who might qualify for one of these publicly funded programs don’t know they are eligible or are hampered by a cumbersome sign-up process, Jesson said.

 “I think what this is going to do is help them get on and stay on,” she said of the exchange. “Those people are really going to benefit.”

Another large group expected to use the exchange are those who lack insurance and do not qualify for Medicaid or MinnesotaCare. This includes the self-employed, young adults no longer covered through their parents’ health plan, and individuals with pre-existing conditions.

The exchange also may draw consumers who have health insurance but want to comparison-shop for a better deal. Going forward, small employers may use the site as well when their health care coverage is up for renewal.

Users have had frustrations with the site, Jesson acknowledged. “I think we’ve gone a long way toward fixing those things, but this is a huge undertaking and there’s going to be bumps along the road.”

The MNSure board will work in upcoming weeks to develop benchmarks for how the site is performing — whether it’s reaching all Minnesotans, for example.

Ensuring adequate choices for consumers across the state will be important, Jesson said. “Do we have good options in rural Minnesota as well as the metro?”

It will also be critical to reach out to populations such as Minnesotans of color and young adults, she said.

Overall, the opening of the exchange is projected to reduce the number of uninsured Minnesotans from 9 percent to 4 percent of the state’s population by the end of 2016.

When people have health insurance, they are less likely to put off necessary care and Minnesota’s overall health status will benefit as a result, Jesson said. “Having health insurance alone isn’t going to make you healthier, but unless you have access to insurance, it’s hard to have a healthier population. This is a fundamental step.”

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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