Minnesotans rushed to sign up for health insurance Monday, as open enrollment ended and consumers closed the first, eventful chapter in an ambitious national experiment to transform health coverage.
The result: long wait times at the state’s MNsure call center and a bogged-down website that prevented some people from completing enrollment.
Problems arose around noon at the federal Internet hub, which helps identify Minnesotans who are eligible for public programs and tax credits. The glitches lasted most of the day and resulted in “intermittent” problems for consumers using the MNsure site, state officials said.
Meanwhile, the MNsure telephone help desk, which at noon began straining under a crush of traffic, had topped 17,000 calls by late afternoon. That was nearly triple the number of calls during the last big push, at the end of last year, and led to average wait times of 20 minutes.
The fallout for insurance enrollment was difficult to gauge late Monday. Officials at MNsure, the state’s new online health insurance exchange, promised a reprieve for all consumers who made a good-faith effort to enroll in a plan by Monday’s midnight deadline but were unable to do so because of technical problems.
More than 9,000 Minnesotans had filled out an online form alerting the agency of their problems. MNsure spokesman Joe Campbell said that the figure, taken in the morning, had “likely gone up dramatically since then.”
MNsure will release preliminary enrollment numbers Tuesday. As of Friday, more than 152,000 people had bought coverage through the website, a number that was expected to rise by the thousands.
At Portico Healthnet in St. Paul, the stack of paper applications kept growing for Kha Moua Vang, who claimed dibs as the “official faxer,” helping clients who had given up on the website.
The social service agency assembled 15 to 18 “navigators” and other health counselors to help people sign up.
Vang worked furiously to fax some 80 to 90 applications over to MNsure, even as the waiting room swelled with people needing help. But most consumers were good-natured about the obstacles.
“We’re just doing things the old-fashioned way, but it all worked out,” said Tsering Dorjee of Fridley, who worked with a Portico navigator to help his brother fill out a paper application for the state’s Medical Assistance plan.
“It’s good to have insurance because you never know,” Dorjee said. “You can get sick at any time and you don’t want those bills to start coming in.”
Under deadlines set out by the federal Affordable Care Act, consumers had until midnight Monday to purchase private health insurance. Small-business owners with at least one employee and those who qualify for public health plans that cover the poor can get coverage at any time.
Minnesotans who fail to buy insurance could face a tax penalty of $95 or 1 percent of household income, whichever is higher. They also won’t have another chance to buy private insurance until Nov. 15, with coverage effective in 2015, except under specific circumstances that change their existing coverage. That could include changing jobs, moving to another state, having a baby or getting married or divorced.
A busy weekend
MNsure officials said traffic began ramping up over the weekend, when the agency’s help desk received more than 4,200 calls.
Private insurers saw a crush of people trying to beat the midnight deadline as well.
“It really feels like April 15 and tax time with how many people have procrastinated,” said Sandy Hill, a senior director at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, where call center volume had doubled and operators were helping “triage” calls from MNsure.
HealthPartners ramped up call center staffing and said traffic was higher, “but not a tsunami,” said spokesman Adam Bauer.
Medica spokesman Greg Bury said the insurer had experienced higher-than-normal call volume, but that it wasn’t as high as the end of December. Wait times were averaging about five minutes.
About half of the calls were related to making payments to trigger coverage on the MNsure exchange, he said.
The offices at Somali Health Solutions were swamped Monday morning, with people waiting to see one of five bilingual navigators.
“If you come to our office now, you will just say ‘Wow,’ ” Executive Director Asli Ashkir said at midday.
The Minneapolis-based center had signed up more than 100 people since Friday, meeting its monthly goal in just four days, she said.
Despite a lethargic MNsure website, the day was moving smoothly, with the sign-up taking 20 to 30 minutes.
“I don’t see a lot of stress,” she said.
At the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis, the waiting line ran to about 15 people by early afternoon. Alan Berks described the scene as “super, super busy,” but patient.
The day’s events left several questions unanswered, including how many repairs the MNsure website still requires and how many of Minnesota’s 445,000 uninsured got coverage through MNsure — and how many of the new enrollees were people who already had insurance but wanted different coverage.
For the time being, however, MNsure officials said they will concentrate on helping consumers who were unable to finish their enrollment because of technical problems and tabulating the results of a very busy day.
Danielle Dullinger is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.