Five vendors have filed plans for improving the MNsure website, with information coming from the Optum division of Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group and the health insurance exchange in the District of Columbia.
MNsure issued a request for information (RFI) from vendors this summer to improve the shopping experience for people who use the website when buying health insurance.
The ideas come at a time of uncertainty for government-run websites like MNsure, given Republican calls to repeal the law that created them.
“MNsure finds the ideas presented in the RFI to be interesting and constructive,” exchange officials said in a statement. “It is vital that we explore the innovation that has occurred in this industry over the last three years.”
The Star Tribune obtained vendor responses this week through a state data request.
Minnesota launched the MNsure exchange in late 2013 to implement the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA), which called for new online marketplaces where individuals could buy coverage.
The exchanges are an option for people who don’t get coverage from an employer or government program like Medicare. While most states have relied on the federal government’s HealthCare.gov website for an exchange, Minnesota and the District of Columbia were in the minority that opted to create their own websites.
MNsure stumbled badly out of the gate in 2013 with a balky website and overwhelmed call center. The website has improved since then, but officials this summer said they wanted to see what vendors might be able to offer.
Allison O’Toole, the MNsure chief executive, mentioned in May that the District of Columbia might be able to help Minnesota, because the website for Washington D.C. consumers is easier to use.
Mila Kofman, the executive director of the DC Health Benefit Exchange Authority, did not put a price tag on her group’s services, but wrote in an Oct. 7 letter that she looked forward to creating “a first-in-the-nation state based marketplace partnership.”
The exchange in D.C. initially used the same commercial off-the-shelf products to build its website, Kofman wrote, and faced millions in annual licensing fees as a result.
“We now use open source code and an Agile approach,” she wrote. “Open source code means that we no longer have licensing fees. The Agile approach allows us to make fixes, corrections, changes and enhancements quickly.”
Optum responded to just a portion of the MNsure request, with the company saying it could help with the exchange’s “system of record” technology.
Optum was credited with a high-profile rescue of HealthCare.gov following technical problems in November 2013.
“Pricing approaches are flexible,” Optum said in its response.
A Virginia-based firm called hCentive Inc. estimated annual costs of nearly $4 million if MNsure used the company’s technology for a system of record, consumer shopping tools, decision support for enrollees and a platform for small business enrollment. It wasn’t clear if MNsure would see savings by moving to the new vendor.
Other responses came from California-based GetInsured and New York-based Softheon Inc.
GOP wants to ax MNsure
MNsure did not issue a formal request for proposals, but says it will discuss the information received with board members and legislators. Republicans who now control both the House and Senate in St. Paul have called for eliminating MNsure, which was launched by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
At the federal level, congressional Republicans and President-elect Trump have called for a repeal of the federal Affordable Care Act. They have also called for replacing the law, but it’s not clear what that would mean for the exchanges, said Cynthia Cox, a researcher with the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Many exchanges including MNsure are funded through a tax on insurance policies sold through the websites. Many who buy through a government-run exchange do so in order to tap federal tax credits provided by the federal health law, so repeal of the Affordable Care Act might eliminate a key incentive for using the exchanges.
Nonetheless, states that created their own exchanges might maintain the websites “so that consumers can still have that shopping experience,” Cox said.