By Don Davis
A new way for Minnesotans to buy health insurance is set to begin today.
Most Minnesotans who even know about MNsure seem to have lots of questions. So here are some answers:
What is MNsure?
Think about Amazon.com or Priceline.com. Instead of buying books or airline tickets, Minnesotans will be able to go online to compare and buy health insurance policies.
Most action will be at www.mnsure.org. Information already is there, but policies cannot be purchased until Tuesday, when full policy information will be on line.
MNsure is a government entity, but government are not providing policies. MNsure and other such “exchanges” and “marketplaces” around the country provide a way to compare and buy policies offered by existing health insurance companies.
I am not very good with computers. Do I have to buy insurance online?
No. Minnesotans may call a toll free number, (855) 366-7873, to get help via telephone or arrange to meet with someone who can provide aid in person.
Who may use MNsure?
At first, MNsure will be limited to people who are not covered under an employer’s plan and businesses with up to 50 employees. Larger employers may be allowed to participate later. An employee could drop an employer’s plan to become eligible, though it may not be advantageous.
How long do I have to sign up?
Tuesday begins a six-month sign-up period. In future years, enrollment periods will last three months.
Do I have to buy insurance through MNsure?
No. Nearly everyone with employer-provided insurance probably will continue without change. Minnesotans may buy insurance outside MNsure, but MNsure officials say it likely will be cheaper to buy from their service because government aid is only available there.
What if I don’t want to buy insurance?
You could be fined. Starting next year, the federal government will fine most Americans who do not have health insurance.
How much will I pay?
It depends. Four levels of coverage (called bronze, silver, gold and platinum) will be offered by each insurance company. For instance, a bronze plan would pay for about 60 percent of the cost of services it covers, while a platinum plan would cover 90 percent.
It is possible for some individuals to buy plans costing less than $100 a month, while a family of four could pay more than $1,000 for a platinum plan.
What Minnesotans pay is affected by income. Those earning less than four times the official federal poverty rate will pay lower rates. For instance, an individual making less than $46,000 a year would get government assistance to lower the cost. A family of four with a $94,000 income or less also would get aid. Some plans will end up being free for those with the lowest incomes.
Insurance companies can consider just three factors when setting rates: geographic area, age and whether a customer smokes. Federal law requires insurance companies to provide coverage regardless of any illnesses customers already have, and those existing conditions cannot affect insurance cost.
Did you say some Minnesotans will get free insurance?
They sure will. Current recipients of state-run health-care programs such as Medical Assistance (the program called Medicaid at the federal level) and MinnesotaCare will get health coverage via MNsure. Many on state programs will get free coverage. Others will get reduced-cost insurance.
Those whose premium would be more than 8 percent of their income do not have to buy a regular plan. They could buy a cheaper “catastrophic plan” that would cover some major health issues.
Can I pick my own insurance company?
Sure. Five companies will offer individual insurance on MNsure: Blue Cross-Blue Shield, Group Health, Medica, PreferredOne and UCare. All five will offer plans in the Twin Cities area north to St. Louis County. Four of the five companies will sell in western Minnesota, three in parts of south-central and northeastern Minnesota and just two in the southeast.
Minnesotans also may buy insurance outside of MNsure, but would not benefit from government financial aid.
If I own a business, can I buy insurance for employees through MNsure?
Businesses with 50 or fewer employees are eligible to get insurance through the new marketplace. MNsure officials say it should save the small businesses money.
Will everything be ready right away?
Probably not. At a recent MNsure board meeting, some officials recommended that Minnesotans wait a while to buy insurance to give them time to get the bugs worked out. MNsure’s executive director said all policies will be available when the Website goes live, but the look and feel of the online marketplace will change over time. In any case, insurance policies bought this year will not begin covering people until Jan. 1.
What steps will be required to buy insurance?
Here is what MNsure says customers will do on line:
— Access the Website. Choose either the individual or small employer category.
— About you. Once you’ve told us some essential details, you’ll see a range of plans that match what you are seeking. All the plans will meet standard requirements for value and quality.
— Select a plan. Compare your options by price, provider or services offered.
— Reduce your cost. You may qualify for tax credits or health programs.
— Complete your enrollment. Individuals and families only need to fill out one application for any type of health coverage offered through the MNsure marketplace.
Is this part of that Obamacare I keep hearing about?
Health-care marketplaces are the centerpiece of the Federal Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Overall, the health-care reform requires almost all Americans to carry health insurance and requires the exchanges, either run by the states or federal government.
Isn’t Congress about to kill Obamacare?
In general, Democrats like the reform and Republicans don’t. Since the president and Senate are Democratic, it is unlikely that Republicans will get their way and be successful in fully overturning it.
Republicans do not want government taking such a large role in health care. They would prefer to leave it up to the private market. Democrats, meanwhile, praise Obamacare’s ability to make sure insurance is available to more Americans and at a more affordable price.
Haven’t I read about some controversies involving MNsure?
Probably. One was that a MNsure worker, no longer employed there, mistakenly sent private information about nearly 1,600 insurance brokers to an insurance agent. MNsure says it made sure the agent deleted the information and did not send it to anyone else.
Also, MNsure was criticized for not providing grants to help spread the word about the new insurance-purchasing system among minority communities. Agency officials then found some money to provide those grants.
There also was a dust-up about using Minnesota icons Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox as MNsure mascots.
What about states surrounding Minnesota?
North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin stepped aside and will let the federal government operate health insurance exchanges. Iowa will work with Washington initially, but state officials plan to eventually take over the program.
People must buy insurance in the state where they live.
How does Minnesota rate in the country?
A recent federal government report indicates that Minnesota’s insurance rates will be the lowest in the country.
Where can I get more information?
www.mnsure.org or www.healthcare.gov