Fred Hundt of Marine on St. Croix is a textbook example of someone the Affordable Care Act is intended to help. The 62-year-old retiree is too young for the federal government’s Medicare program, but old enough that private health insurance would take a daunting bite out of a fixed income.
Unfortunately, until recently Hundt was also one of the Minnesotans ill-served by the rocky rollout of the state’s new MNsure health insurance marketplace. Websites like it are one of the key ways that the new health reform law helps people comparison-shop for coverage and find out if they qualify for newly available financial assistance.
Hundt made multiple valiant efforts to try to buy insurance on the exchange but was unable to resolve his website troubles or get through MNsure’s jammed phone lines to its assistance center. He kept trying, though, and in the end the delays and frustrations were worth it — an outcome important to note for the Minnesotans who need to give MNsure a second or third chance in the critical run-up to March 31. That’s the last day to sign up for 2014 coverage and avoid the penalty for going without.
In February, MNsure’s newly up-to-speed customer service and faster call-center response time finally helped Hundt get a smart deal on a health plan. He’s now enrolled in a “platinum” level Preferred One plan with a $1,000 deductible, 0 percent coinsurance and monthly premiums that went from $430 a month to $258 a month after he qualified for tax-credit assistance.
“It’s hard to repair a car while you’re driving it, which is what they had to do,” Hundt said of MNsure. “There’s certainly improvement happening. They’re at least now figuring out what’s not working and creating workarounds.’’
MNsure indisputably failed to meet expectations during its first few months of operations. But the new marketplace is improving on critical fronts, which should inspire confidence during this crucial sign-up time:
• Customer service. Back in December, wait times for the call center were abysmal, running over an hour on average. MNsure has added 100 additional call-center staff members. Last week, it took less than two minutes on average to speak with a real person.
• Community outreach. There will be 650 events offering face-to-face assistance by the end of the month in communities across the state. That’s a smart plan. Buying health insurance is complex. Assistance is needed for those without computer access or those who have questions about financial assistance.
• Website performance. The website still can be balky and require downtime for fixes. Nonetheless, the error rate has declined substantially since the site’s earliest days and has stabilized at around 3 percent of users’ clicks yielding an error. That’s still too high, but better than the 17 percent peak. The site’s performance also got an independent thumbs-up this week from Joe Ede of the Minnesota AIDS Project. Ede said that the site works dramatically better and that “assisters” like him can reach MNsure staff much more quickly.
• Fewer “stuck” applications. The number of applications for coverage put in a “pending eligibility” hold has gone from 12,000 to about 800.
• Handing off enrollees’ information to health insurers. The process had lagged in Minnesota and nationally. This week, the Minnesota Council of Health Plans said that while there are manual workarounds to resolve errors, insurers and MNsure have a “good partnership” and are “working very hard to make progress.”
MNsure enrollment figures also recently topped 113,000. While that’s short of initial projections, it undermines critics’ claims that the site simply doesn’t work. The state’s nation-leading enrollment in so-called platinum plans, which cover the highest percentage of an enrollee’s medical costs, also suggests that coverage is affordable and high-quality.
As for critics who contend MNsure has failed because enrollment in private plans lags enrollment in public programs, context is needed. Minnesota policymakers decided to expand Medical Assistance eligibility. The state also elected to keep its well-regarded MinnesotaCare program for workers who earn too much for Medical Assistance but not enough to make private coverage affordable. Minnesota is the only state extending this type of program under the health care reform law, so it’s hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons with other state’s private-vs.-public-enrollment breakdowns. MinnesotaCare also is administered by the state’s private health insurers, another important piece of context.
There’s obviously much more work to be done before MNsure is deemed a success. Improvements, however, are underway. Many consumers who give the site another shot will find that their persistence pays off — as it did for Hundt — in quality, affordable coverage.