By Don Davis
The beleaguered state agency providing an online method of buying health insurance responded to complaints that a Monday deadline is too soon given computer glitches and an overwhelmed call center and delayed the final day to sign up to Dec. 31.
“We are aware of the concerns many consumers have as we approach Jan. 1, and we are taking critical steps to ensure that Minnesotans have comprehensive, affordable health coverage when they need it,” MNsure interim Chief Executive Officer Scott Leitz said Friday.
The announcement means that anyone who buys a policy on Dec. 31 or earlier, and pays for it by Jan. 10, will have insurance when the new year begins.
MNsure provides a mostly web-based method to buy health insurance for those who do not have employer-provided coverage and people on government-subsidized Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare. But the web site frequently has been down or Minnesotans have not been able to complete the work to buy policies. If they turn to the telephone for help, the MNsure call center has experienced long delays, which on Friday afternoon reached two hours on hold as the number of calls increased.
With a Monday deadline facing anyone who needs insurance beginning Jan. 1, the MNsure board this week voted to work with insurance companies to push back the deadline as late as possible.
Leitz, on the job since Wednesday, said that insurers were willing to delay the deadline.
The delay only applies to individual and family policies. Small businesses buying insurance for employees still must meet the Monday deadline.
Most Minnesotans will not go through MNsure for insurance. Their employers will continue to provide coverage.
MNsure has extended its hours, with the web site available for people to enroll from 6 a.m. to midnight every day and the call center is open Monday through Friday 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Those who miss the Dec. 31 deadline still may sign up for insurance through March, with their policies beginning the first of the next month.
Minnesotans signing up late will not have insurance cards if they go to health-care providers such as doctors and pharmacies early in January.
“We want to make sure doctors and hospitals are aware of this,” Leitz said. “We will be reaching out to them.”
MNsure also is looking at how to help Minnesotans who are not able to get insurance purchased.
“We are actively reaching out to people stuck in the process,” Leitz said.
MNsure emphasized Friday that payments must arrive at insurance companies by Jan. 10 for policies to remain in place. Credit cards may be used on the MNsure website.
The website provides a varying number of policy options to people around the state. At least two insurance companies offer policies in every part of the state, with as many as five companies in places.
Medical Assistance recipients who officials have informed qualify for aid need to do nothing else to have insurance Jan. 1, MNsure reports. Those already determined to qualify for MinnesotaCare also will have coverage, but must pay their bills once they arrive.
Republicans have been critical of MNsure, enacted earlier this year by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and a Democratic-controlled Legislature. One GOP senator wants a special session to fix MNsure problems.
Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, asked the governor Friday to call a special legislative session immediately to deal with MNsure’s issues.
“Minnesotans are heading into the holiday week feeling unsure about MNsure,” Housley said. “An unelected MNsure Board, an ill-timed vacation, excessive wait times and a faulty website have prevented Minnesota families from ensuring that they and their loved ones have health care coverage.”
One of the issues Republicans highlight is a two-week Costa Rican vacation MNsure Executive Director April Todd-Malmlov took in November, as problems mounted in her agency.
Leitz was named interim chief of the agency during a hastily called Tuesday night MNsure board meeting in which Todd-Malmlov resigned.
MNsure was created earlier this year in response to a federal health care law popularly known as Obamacare. It set up a mostly online way for Minnesotans to buy private health insurance.
Tens of thousands of Minnesotans have signed up for insurance via MNsure, but eventually, about a million people are expected to use the service.
Key MNsure contacts
– www.mnsure.org is the general Website and the place for Minnesotans to start as they buy private health insurance
– www.mnsure.org/tools/locater/index.jsp provides a list of organizations that can provide people to help those struggling with the Web site and those without computers
– (855) 366-7873 is a toll-free telephone number people may call to get MNsure questions answered (long waits have been reported)