Small businesses run into MNsure problems

  • Article by: JACKIE CROSBY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 7, 2014 - 11:11 AM

Companies have run into many of the same challenges encountered by individuals on health insurance exchange.

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Forest Mushrooms employees Adriana Gomez and Elvia Cedillo package oyster mushrooms for shipment. Small businesses like Forest Mushrooms used MNsure to buy health coverage for their employees.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Minnesota’s new health insurance exchange isn’t getting off the mark with small businesses any faster than it is with consumers.

As of last week, only 115 Minnesota small businesses had used the MNsure website to buy medical coverage for their workers, far below expectations. Companies have faced many of the same problems besetting individuals — a glitchy sign-up process and interminable waits to reach the MNsure call center.

“I can’t tell you how frustrating it has been,” said Kathy Doyle, office manager for Forest Mushrooms in St. Joseph, Minn.

One of the major goals of insurance exchanges throughout the country was to help mom-and-pop shops find more affordable coverage. The idea was that a bigger risk pool would hold down costs.

But just 475 Minnesota workers are covered on small business plans purchased through MNsure, according to the latest figures. The state had hoped to enroll nearly 9,000 employees by March 31 and 13,000 by year’s end.

Neil Rolland, who directs MNsure’s small business exchange, acknowledged that small firms have been hampered by “system limitations.” But he said more businesses are getting through now.

Doyle said she wrestled with the MNsure site for more than two months before squaring things away for her brother’s 10-employee company.

“We paid for insurance in January; the check’s been cashed,” she said. But the company had no insurance cards until last week, and “no way to prove to anybody we have insurance.”

One employee had to pay $200 in out-of-pocket costs for a prescription. In another case, Doyle sent a worker with a high-risk pregnancy to the doctor with a letter that verified insurance and sought a delay in billing until MNsure could sort things out.

Some small business owners are giving up in frustration. Dan Freier owns a health care market research firm, Deft Research, and tried to set up a defined contribution option so his 10 employees could go to the MNsure exchange and shop for themselves.

Freier successfully created a MNsure account, painstakingly filled out forms with his employees’ names and Social Security numbers and thought he was “set to go.”

But then the site quit working, and MNsure told him to reapply by mail.

“I just said, ‘Screw it.’ Life’s too short,” Freier said. “We gave it a game try, and moved into buying the old-fashioned way” using a broker.

“In hindsight, I should have given up earlier and waited until next year, when all the kinks were worked out,” he said.

The issues with MNsure’s small business site are hardly unique. Many of the 15 exchanges run by states and the District of Columbia have been slow out of the gate. California didn’t get its business exchange launched until Dec. 2, and exchanges in Idaho, Maryland, Mississippi and Oregon still aren’t open for small businesses.

The federal site, HealthCare.gov, delayed online enrollment for small businesses for a year, and only accepts paper applications for now.

The Affordable Care Act established the SHOP exchanges, which stands for Small Business Health Options Program, for firms with fewer than 50 full-time employees. By 2017, employers of any size will be allowed to use the SHOP exchanges.

Tax credits of up to half of the premium cost are available for the smallest of companies — those with less than 25 workers and an average annual wage of less than $50,000. The business discounts, just as with individuals, are available only through the exchange.

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    finding a planMinnesota’s Small Business Health Options Program, known as the SHOP exchange, is open to organizations with up to...

  • Forest Mushrooms owner Kevin Doyle and sister Katy Doyle, who is office manager, at the company's growing room in St. Joseph. Katy Doyle wrestled with MNsure's web site to buy health coverage for the company's employees.

  • Dan Freier, front, is CFO of Deft Research, a small company that tried to use MNsure to buy coverage. Freier was photographed with employees (left to right) Steve Runfeldt, Andrew Anthony, Rich Hamer and Liz Schlimgen on Jan. 7.

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