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March 31: MNsure targets young people as deadline nears

ST. PAUL — It’s crunch time at MNsure.

If people don’t get health insurance by March 31, they could face penalties under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Plus, people who don’t meet the coverage deadline likely won’t have another chance to buy an insurance policy until November.

Finally, MNsure needs to reach more young adults to balance the financial risk from earlier enrollees who skewed older and, presumably, will run up bigger health care bills.

“We are really going to be spending the next week focusing a lot of our outreach efforts on the ‘young invincible’ population — folks who are post-college into their early 30s who might not necessarily see the need for health insurance coverage,” said Scott Leitz, interim chief executive officer at MNsure, during a news conference Thursday at St. Paul College.

“The 31st is the last opportunity for folks to purchase health insurance coverage to avoid the penalty as well as to be able to get into coverage if they’re not eligible for a public health insurance program until fall open enrollment,” he added. “If they put it off now — and they think they need health insurance coverage in the interim — they’re simply not going to be able to get into that coverage.”

Minnesota launched the MNsure health exchange last year to implement the federal health law, which requires almost all Americans to obtain health insurance by month’s end. Those who don’t could face a tax penalty of either $95 or 1 percent of their income, whichever amount is greater.

After March 31, many won’t have another chance to purchase coverage until the next MNsure open enrollment period begins Nov. 15. Policies bought at that point would take effect Jan. 1.

The restriction against obtaining coverage after March 31 doesn’t apply to everyone, because people still will be able to enroll in the state’s Medicaid and MinnesotaCare health insurance programs. There’s also a chance to buy coverage after March 31 in the case of “life events,” such as the loss of job-based coverage or the birth of a child.

As of Thursday, more than 128,000 Minnesotans have enrolled in health insurance coverage through MNsure. The tally includes people who will be covered by the Medicaid and MinnesotaCare public health insurance programs as well as those who buy a private health plan.

About one-third of those who have purchased commercial health insurance policies through MNsure are age 34 or younger. About 16 percent are in the target 26- to 34-year-old age range that MNsure is trying to reach.

“I think the goal was to have a higher mix of what we’d call those young invincibles,” said Eric Larson, chief operating officer at MNsure.

To reach young enrollees, MNsure has scheduled events during happy hours at bars and on college campuses, Leitz said. Some events will simply provide information about MNsure. Others will include a chance for people to get help enrolling online.

Two community events will feature actors Barkhad Abdi and Faysal Ahmed, who star in the film “Captain Phillips.”

Insurance companies that sell policies through MNsure hope the efforts work, and say they are doing their part to boost awareness. Reaching young people could be an uphill battle, considering the history of troubles with MNsure’s website and call center.

“Young people have little tolerance for a poor technology experience,” said Scott Keefer, vice president of policy and legislative affairs at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.

MNsure officials say the health exchange website still isn’t perfect, but is much better than it was.

To publicize the enrollment deadline, Blue Cross will begin using electronic billboards today across the Twin Cities to count down the final 10 days before March 31.

Medica, a health insurance company based in Minnetonka, is publicizing the March 31 deadline with an advertising campaign called “No Regrets.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek campaign that highlights decisions people might later regret, such as getting a tattoo on the neck or eating too much spicy food, said Dannette Coleman, a senior vice president at Medica.

“Buying health insurance is one decision that you won’t regret,” Coleman said.

Bloomington-based HealthPartners and Minneapolis-based UCare — the other companies offering policies through MNsure — also have stepped up outreach activities.

Marcus Merz, chief executive officer at Golden Valley-based PreferredOne, said insurers hope people will see economic value in buying coverage.

“These are the lowest premiums you’re ever going to see,” said Merz, whose company’s products have been the most popular choice on MNsure. People who have gone without insurance “don’t know what a visit to an ER is going to cost, let alone any kind of hospitalization or a physician visit that generates an MRI. You can run up $2,000 or $3,000 very quickly.”

MNsure says it has organized more than 1,000 enrollment events for the month of March to reach people of all ages — not just the young. The MNsure call center also will be open the next two Sundays, in addition to regular Monday-through-Saturday hours.

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