The board of Minnesota's new insurance exchange is freeing up as much as $750,000 to help people sign up for coverage in response to criticism that it was doing too little to reach those in need.
The unanimous vote to free up the money for community organizations came a day after MNsure leaders came under fire from legislators and community leaders for overlooking some areas, particularly among African-Americans, in announcing $2 million in grants last month.
Gov. Mark Dayton said Wednesday that he sent e-mails to MNsure executive director April Todd-Malmlov and Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson voicing his concerns about groups that "were rightfully indignant that they were excluded from outreach funding."
"I take it very seriously," Dayton said. "I hope the board will act with additional funds to remedy that, and I hope that they won't have to repeat that mistake again."
MNsure, the state's new health insurance marketplace, launches Oct. 1 for open enrollment. In addition to making it easier for individuals and small-business owners to comparison shop among health plans, a key goal is to help the more than 490,000 uninsured Minnesotans sign up for affordable coverage.
Alfred Babington-Johnson, who testified before the MNsure Legislative Oversight Committee about the importance of reaching the African-American community, thanked Dayton for weighing in and said the MNsure board's action to expand the pool of recipients was a "positive development."
"Outreach and infrastructure is more than a little important," Babington-Johnson said. "It is the bottom line for MNsure's existence and for whether or not it will be a success."
Babington-Johnson had applied for a grant to enable his organization, the Stairstep Foundation, to deepen its network of churches and community outposts that already work to improve access to medical care in African-American neighborhoods.
He said that there remains a "cultural divide" in reaching certain groups and that traditional advertising and mass mailings won't work. "There needs to be some recognition that the reason there are uninsured people is that some are not operating in the mainstream," he said.
Sue Abderholden, executive director of Minnesota's chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said she was glad to have a second chance, particularly because health insurance companies for the first time will be required to cover mental health issues if they sell plans on the MNsure exchange.
Abderholden had submitted an application as part of a group of mental health associations and child-care agencies that operate support groups, help lines and education classes at some 173 locations around the state.
"I wanted to be careful that this didn't come off as sour grapes," she said. "But I was very disappointed that our community was not included because this is a huge group of people who could benefit greatly from what the exchange offers."
New grants to go out quickly
Board members discussed the issue for about an hour, meeting for the first time in the MNsure headquarters in downtown St. Paul.
The additional grant money will come from savings in consumer testing and online training, where costs had come in lower than budgeted, Todd-Malmlov told the board. It does not require federal approval, which will make it easier to quickly disburse the funds.
The recipients of the new round of grants will be pulled from the 109 organizations that already have submitted applications.
MNsure board members urged that the money be disbursed as quickly as possible.
Last month, 30 organizations were named as recipients of federal grants that range from $2,000 to $200,000 for individual organizations and up to $500,000 for coalitions of multiple organizations.
Existing grants still are being finalized and questions have been raised about some of those, including a small-business advocacy group with DFL ties and a broker who pleaded guilty to resisting arrest or obstructing an officer during a traffic stop in Wisconsin in 2011.
A MNsure spokesman said officials are in the final stage of reviewing the recipients — a process that includes looking at financial issues, conflicts of interest and other issues that might prohibit the award of government grants.
Staff writer Jim Ragsdale contributed to this report.