MNsure’s troubles are leaving the poor stranded

  • Article by: CHRIS SERRES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 15, 2014 - 5:37 AM

Lost applications among biggest glitches in new enrollment plan.

It’s early on a Monday, and Comopsia Stanley is making a series of calls in rapid succession, stopping only to wipe tears from her reddened eyes.

Her diabetic son, Demarco, 11, is down to just a day’s supply of insulin, and Stanley is trying desperately to determine if her online application for Medical Assistance through MNsure has been approved so she can buy more.

Each call is more frantic than the last. “What do you want?” Stanley, 36, pleads with an Anoka County social service worker. “Do you want my son to die?”

The messy rollout of MNsure, the state’s troubled online insurance exchange, just got messier for thousands of low-income Minnesotans.

Until December, families who qualified for Medical Assistance, the state’s version of Medicaid, could get immediate coverage by applying on paper at their local county social service offices.

That changed abruptly on Jan. 1, when new eligibility requirements prompted many counties across the state to stop taking paper applications for Medical Assistance. Instead, officials are directing poorer people to apply online through MNsure, a system that has been plagued with glitches since it went live in October. Paper applications are still accepted in some counties and at the Department of Human Services office in St. Paul.

While much of the attention has fallen on consumers using MNsure to buy commercial coverage from insurers such as Blue Cross, the glitches now mean potentially painful delays for thousands of poor Minnesotans who have urgent — even life-or-death — medical needs.

County officials say applications through MNsure continue to get stuck in computer limbo because of so-called “processing errors,” leaving people who are least able to afford medical expenses stranded with no insurance.

“If someone walks into a county agency looking for help, and is told to apply [through MNsure], that person is at risk of getting lost in the new system,” said Ralonda Mason, a supervising attorney for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid in St. Cloud, which is assisting people with MNsure.

Advocates such as Mason argue that low-income Minnesotans should still get the option of applying for Medical Assistance on paper, as they have done for decades, until the glitches in the new online exchange are worked out.

“How many people are falling through the cracks because of this?” Mason asked.

In government circles, it’s a well-known secret that many Minnesota counties continued to process Medical Assistance applications the old-fashioned way — namely, by paper — even after MNsure went live in October. The MNsure website was prone to sudden crashes and processing errors, and the Medical Assistance applications were inherently difficult to process because of Minnesota’s complex eligibility requirements.

Since October, Anoka County has processed 4,500 applications for Medical Assistance using paper, with applications taken by hand and entered manually into the state’s old computer system — known as “MAXIS.”

“We knew that MNsure wasn’t ready for prime time,” said Jerry Vitzthum, director of economic assistance at Anoka County Human Services. “Why would we send someone into that system if we didn’t have to?”

The counties’ strategy helped alleviate some of the burden on MNsure by diverting applications away from the online portal. Enrollment in Medical Assistance through MNsure totaled 28,401 as of Jan. 4, more than double the 12,240 projected for the open enrollment period, which ends March 31.

Bad memories

One reason counties were reluctant to embrace MNsure is that many government workers recall an earlier botched effort at automating public health insurance enrollment.

In 2002, the state Department of Human Services embarked on an ambitious project to create an online eligibility system for nearly 700,000 people covered by the state’s public health programs. Known as “Healthmatch,” the project consistently failed to meet scheduled benchmarks and was millions of dollars over budget. The state finally pulled the plug on Healthmatch in 2009, after spending more than $40 million.

  • Getting Help

    • For questions about a Medical Assistance application, call the Department of Human Services Help Desk at 651-431-2670 or 1-855-366-7873. The DHS Help Desk is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

    • For assistance completing an application, go to the state’s “assister” network. A list of “navigators’’ can be found at http://tinyurl.com/mp86fbt.

    • To download the paper application, go to http://tinyurl.com/mex97am.

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