MNsure Enrollments Surge on Deadline Day

Efforts to prepare for a last-minute surge in enrollments paid off. Though applicants faced call center waits and website slowdowns, a repeat of website problems that plagued its Oct. 1 launch was avoided.

by Mila Koumpilova, McClatchy News Service / April 1, 2014

Minnesotans swamped the state's health care marketplace call centers, strained its website and flocked to help centers to beat the midnight Monday deadline for open enrollment.

MNsure said efforts to prepare for a last-minute surge in enrollments paid off. Applicants faced call center waits and website slowdowns, but MNsure avoided a repeat of website problems that plagued its Oct. 1 launch.

Some would-be enrollees, however, lost patience with the website and turned to paper applications at help centers.

By 4 p.m., the call centers had fielded about 17,000 calls, more than three times that seen on Dec. 31, an earlier enrollment deadline for coverage that took effect Jan. 1.

The average time on hold Monday was about 20 minutes, MNsure officials said.

"Call times were dramatically lower today despite the dramatic increase in call volume," said spokesman Joe Campbell.

MNsure will have preliminary enrollment numbers Tuesday. As of Friday, about 152,000 people had enrolled through MNsure. It will likely be weeks, though, before officials have data on how many of the state's 400,000 uninsured signed up for coverage.

Exchange critics and supporters alike are watching closely the breakdown of enrollments for public and commercial coverage, as well as the age of enrollees -- factors that will affect its long-term health./p>

Of the 152,000 enrolled through MNsure as of Friday, 42,000 obtained private coverage, short of an original goal of about 70,000. MNsure, though, has topped its goal of about 135,000 enrollees overall.

About 700 people await a decision on their eligibility, said Scott Leitz, MNsure's interim CEO.

Officials said Minnesotans will not face a tax penalty for missing the deadline as long as they can show they tried to enroll. They encouraged people to fill out the enrollment attempt form on the exchange web site.

Most state residents seeking commercial coverage won't have another chance to obtain it until Nov. 15, when policies for 2015 will become available. But Minnesotans can continue to enroll in the Medicaid or MinnesotaCare programs for low-income people after Monday.

Still, Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said she is glad many Minnesotans are signing up now.

"I'm really heartened by the strong enrollment in our public programs," said Jesson, who stressed coverage in those programs will be retroactive for people making their way through the enrollment process.

On Monday morning at MNsure's call center in downtown St. Paul, about 50 staffers worked the phones. An additional 100 assisted customers at a Mendota Heights call center.

That compared with 80 to 90 total for the two centers earlier in March, said the St. Paul center's director, Carol Kehner.

"Today, it's all hands on deck," Kehner said. "Pretty much everybody's on the phone."

The call centers were open until midnight.

Foot traffic was brisk at a help center for enrollees in the Ramsey County Government Center East in downtown St. Paul, too.

There, most inquiries were from people seeking to sign up for a public program, said Nasra Osman, a "navigator" with the nonprofit Portico Healthnet who was helping guide people through the enrollment process.

However, many of them mistakenly believed Monday was their last chance to enroll, she said.

"Everybody is just nervous about March 31," Osman said. "We try to tell them they still have time to enroll in public plans."

Lee Bolton of St. Paul said he thought it was "get coverage today or not at all" when he came in to get help with signing up for Minnesota-Care. He said he had put off applying until Monday because he had a busy schedule and did not have a home computer.

After about 20 minutes at a help center computer, Bolton lost patience with a sluggish MNsure website and turned to a paper application.

MNsure officials said they anticipated website speed would slow down as traffic intensified Monday. The MNsure site connects with a federal online hub that verifies some enrollee identities, and that site was experiencing difficulties, they said.

Rep. Tara Mack, R-Apple Valley, said she continues to be concerned about the balance MNsure is striking between public and private plans as well as between younger, healthy enrollees and others.

Mack, who serves on the MNsure Legislative Oversight Committee, noted numbers the committee reviewed recently suggested private enrollment is lagging behind the state's goal.

"That's a pretty formidable equation that threatens the long-term sustainability of MNsure," she said.

She also questioned whether MNsure had done enough to publicize the deadline and penalties. She cited emails she received from surprised constituents when she sent a reminder last week.

Leitz said MNsure believes more enrollees in the run-up to the deadline signed up for private plans than in the earlier days of enrollment: "We feel confident with what we have."

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©2014 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)