Star Tribune staff writer

MNsure officials celebrated Wednesday after reaching their health insurance enrollment goal for 2014, but a Minnesota lawmaker pointed out that it was a “low-low-low” enrollment goal that was adjusted down repeatedly from the state's original forecasts.

In a letter to Gov. Mark Dayton, Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said the enrollment so far of 136,000 Minnesotans included a much higher share of people qualifying for public health plans such as Medical Assistance and a much lower number of people purchasing full-cost or subsidized commercial plans from private health insurers such as Blue Cross. The latter group is critical, because MNsure funds its operation as an online insurance exchange through revenues generated by private health plan sales.

"The truth that your administration, and the MNsure Board, should be telling all Minnesotans is that enrollment projections have been woefully short of your administration's predictions, and that enrollment numbers for the individual market is in fact 78% below the estimates used when MNsure was rushed through the legislature a year ago," Abeler said in Tuesday's letter.

Abeler said legislators voted to create MNsure based on formal forecasts of 164,000 to 270,000 people using the exchange to purchase private health insurance. But even using MNsure's more recent and lower forecasts, which ranged from 50,000 to 100,000, the exchange is still behind pace, with only 32,890 private plan enrollees.

Numbers released Wednesday at the MNsure board's regular meeting actually look better than those the agency highlighted in a Tuesday press release. On Wednesday, MNsure was able to add people who enrolled using paper applications  – and now the exchange can announce it has enrolled 148,068 people, including 41,273 people who used the exchange to purchase private health plans.

Enrollment activity has increased in recent days as well, as there are only five days left before the 2014 open-enrollment period closes. After March 31, people are subject to federal financial penalties if they are uninsured, and can purchase coverage via MNsure for 2014 only if they have a qualifying life event such as a job change.

While the mix of public versus private enrollees is different than expected, MNsure interim executive director Scott Leitz said the important point is that thousands of Minnesotans now have medical coverage. Also, he said, the board budgeted its operations for the next year on the assumption of 40,000 private enrollees, so Leitz said it will be financially stable and won't need additional state or federal financial help.

"The important thing to remember," he said, "is that almost 150,000 Minnesotans are in coverage now -- in good coverage."

At Wednesday's board meeting, exchange officials noted that wait times at its call center have ticked up recently, a recent bump in the number of applicants whose health insurance enrollments are stuck in the purgatory of "pending" status, and five recent days in which the online exchange was down for brief periods due to technical issues.

Leitz said all the problems are being addressed and aren't an indicator of bigger problems as the March 31 deadline grows closer, like the problems MNsure faced during an earlier enrollment deadline on Dec. 31.

"We learned lessons from the fall," Leitz said.

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