As open enrollment begins, Minnesota touts its advantages

Published 10:27 pm Wednesday, November 1, 2017

ST. PAUL — Open enrollment began Wednesday for Minnesota shoppers who buy health insurance on their own, and the head of the state’s insurance exchange says Minnesota is well-positioned to help residents sign up for coverage amid the federal confusion about health care.

Minnesota is one just 12 states with its own exchange, called MNsure. While President Donald Trump’s administration has cut open enrollment down to just six weeks and slashed federal spending on advertising and outreach, MNsure has autonomy. And it’s capitalizing on it.

Minnesota has extended its open enrollment period to Jan. 14. The state exchange has kept its advertising budget steady from past years, and is still funding enrollment advocates who fan out across the state to help residents sign up.

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MNsure chief executive Allison O’Toole said that should help the state cut through the confusion about the future of health care that experts worry will lead to a drastic drop in enrollment nationwide.

“We’re sort of in a sweet spot,” O’Toole said. “I’m glad that we have the reins here to do what’s right for Minnesotans.”

By late afternoon, the exchange said it had already seen over 40,000 visits to its website . A year after suspected robocalls tied up phone lines on the opening day of enrollment, call wait times were averaging just one second on Wednesday.

Minnesota’s individual market is a tiny slice of the state’s health care: Less than 5 percent of residents buy coverage through the exchange or directly from insurers. But that market has been rocked by double-digit premiums increases in recent years, and every single company offering coverage in the individual market threatened to flee in 2017.

Minnesota lawmakers put forward a costly solution: A $549 million reinsurance program that will help insurers cover claims that have driven up insurance rates. That two-year program helped stabilize premiums for 2018 — residents will see some modest price hikes or even some slight decreases compared to 2017 rates.

With a botched rollout in 2014 and years of technological issues, the last several years of rising premiums have added fuel for Republicans calling on the state to dismantle MNsure — though the exchange itself does not set rates. State Rep. Matt Dean, a longtime critic and Republican candidate for governor in 2018, renewed his call Wednesday to eliminate MNsure.

“MNsure has been an expensive technical, bureaucratic and programmatic disaster for Minnesotans,” he said, pitching a plan to set up a new, county-based system by 2020 to determine whether shoppers are eligible for public health programs or federal tax subsidies. MNsure currently serves both functions.

While open enrollment lasts through Jan. 14, residents have to buy insurance by Dec. 20 to have coverage for the start of the New Year.