Diverse crew is spreading the word on MNsure

Broad base of insurance advisers targets wide spectrum of clients.


MNsure, Minnesota's health insurance exchange, launched on Tuesday,

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Minnesota is about to unleash one of the most unorthodox insurance sales forces in state history as it moves to the next phase of enrolling people for health coverage under the grand experiment known as Obamacare.

Even before last week’s launch of the MNsure online marketplace, state leaders had begun certifying thousands of Minnesotans who will get paid to help people sign up for health insurance. They come from groups as wide-ranging as the liberal Planned Parenthood family planning organization and the conservative Teen Challenge addiction program.

While the initiative might inspire a new round of insurance jokes — have you heard the one about insurance salesmen being premium lovers? — MNsure officials said these “navigators” will be essential to the law’s ultimate success because many of the nation’s uninsured won’t pursue coverage unless someone finds them and explains their options.

“The whole point is to take the service to the people,’’ said Rebecca Lozano, outreach program manager for Portico Healthnet, a St. Paul health access organization that will serve as a navigator.

While traditional salespeople such as insurance brokers will be in the mix, the state is enlisting nonprofits and businesses that already work with small segments of the state’s uninsured population. The goal is to take advantage of their existing relationships and insure as many of the estimated 490,000 uninsured Minnesotans as possible by Jan. 1. Open enrollment ends March 31, and those without coverage could face fines.

An estimated 60 percent of Minnesota’s uninsured are already eligible for subsidized coverage through Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare — a sign that something more than the cost has kept people away.

Minnesota’s strategy is to blanket the state’s libraries, clinics, food shelves, fall festivals, hospitals and other locations with more than 5,000 people who have been certified to help consumers find plans on MNsure. They include insurance brokers, tax preparers, human resource staff and the navigators — an official term for individuals trained and funded by state and federal grants to provide unbiased advice on selecting plans.

“We do have a lot of interest and a lot of people who want to help, which is great,” said April Todd-Malmlov, MNsure executive director. By comparison, she said, California expects to have 7,000 such helpers.

Planned Parenthood’s Minnesota chapter became a navigator agency because about 75 percent of its clients — often young or pregnant women — are uninsured.

“They are the exact people we need to reach in order to make the Affordable Care Act work in our state,” said Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Jennifer Aulwes.

The Minnesota AIDS Project created a network of urban and rural navigators to make sure that coverage is offered to people who are HIV positive and to people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Health coverage could help prevent HIV infections and transmissions if it results in more people receiving regular medical care and advice.

“It’s a combined effort to reach a community that we know well,” said AIDS Project spokeswoman Melissa Conway.

Like the MNsure website, however, the navigator strategy has suffered glitches and delays. State officials planned to have navigators certified and ready to help by Day 1, but most of the participating agencies were still waiting late last week for the state to sign their contracts and provide the certification number their workers need before they can help anyone buy insurance. On Friday afternoon, the MNsure directory listed numerous brokers who were available to help, but only four navigator agencies.

Slow to get certified

Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said trying to get two staffers certified as in-person assisters has been frustrating. Sign-up information arrived at the last minute, and sending in their background checks via encrypted e-mail proved challenging.

“I couldn’t figure out how to do it, and there was no number to call,” she said. “We don’t have anyone certified yet, but we’re getting closer!”

Abderholden is eager to get her staffers connected with people because insurers for the first time are required to cover mental health and substance abuse treatment in every plan they sell on the exchanges.

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