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As deadline passes, MNsure exceeds sign-up goal

By Mike Koumpilova

St. Paul Pioneer Press

More than 169,200 Minnesotans signed up for health insurance through the online marketplace MNsure by the March 31 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.

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 filled out an “enrollment attempt form” in a bid to avoid the tax penalty for missing the deadline.

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.

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 Governor 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. Representative 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.

“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.

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 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 the deadline.

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.

For most people, the next opportunity to sign up for a private plan is November 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.

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The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service, which includes the Echo Press.