By Allison O'Toole, St. Paul, MN

There's no use sugar-coating it. The 5 percent of Minnesotans who buy insurance on their own, rather than getting it through employers or public programs, are in a difficult position. Minnesota's insurance companies are dramatically increasing their premiums. While policymakers work to determine ways to fix this broken portion of the health insurance market, MNsure can help these consumers survive this challenging time.

Before focusing on how to help those 5 percent, it's worth noting that Minnesota also has good news on the health coverage front. This spring, we learned that Minnesota's uninsured rate has been cut nearly in half since MNsure launched, from 8.2 percent to 4.3 percent. That's an all-time historic low for Minnesota, and one of the lowest rates in the nation.

MNsure is a significant reason for that achievement, and we're proud of our contribution. About 500,000 Minnesotans have signed up for coverage through MNsure, an amount equivalent to the combined populations of the cities of St. Paul, Rochester and Duluth.

While MNsure's customer experience was inexcusably poor when it launched in 2013, system stability and call wait times have improved dramatically. The system has also gotten more consumer-friendly. For instance, Minnesotans now can use our plan comparison tool to quickly learn their monthly premium, and whether they qualify for free or reduced cost coverage.

Despite that progress, the struggle faced by individual market consumers is real. Here's how MNsure can help them in the weeks to come.

Premiums are set by insurance companies, not MNsure, but MNsure plays an important role that is a bit like Orbitz or Kayak in the travel business. Like Kayak, MNsure doesn't set prices, but it can help consumers search and find the best possible deals.

MNsure is also the place - in fact, the only place - where Minnesotans can find out if they qualify for tax credits to offset premiums and receive those tax credits. Individuals earning up to $47,520 annually, or a family of four earning up to $97,200 per year, qualify for a tax credit.

But too few Minnesotans are aware of this fact. Last year, about 100,000 Minnesotans who qualified for the tax credits didn't use them. This year, we want that to change.

What kind of help can Minnesotans find when shopping at www.mnsure.org? Well, a family of four earning $85,000 in Rochester looking for a gold level plan will face a steep $785/month premium increase in 2017. That's troubling news. But that family will learn via MNsure that they are eligible for a tax credit that has increased by $747 over the amount they received the previous year, and end up paying only $38/month more this year.

Similarly, a 25-year-old in Duluth earning $25,000 purchasing a silver level plan may be facing a premium increase of $105/month. But that same person will learn via MNsure that his tax credit will more than double this year. This person will pay less per month because of his tax credit.

In other words, it literally pays to shop on MNsure. These tax credits are significant, and are only available when enrolling through MNsure.

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Editor's note: Allison O'Toole is the chief executive officer of MNsure. Minnesotans can compare health plans and determine if they're eligible for financial assistance at www.mnsure.org.