Minnesotans who buy insurance on their own will once again get extra time to shop for health coverage that kicks in Jan. 1. While that’s a welcome new development, 2015 should be the last year in which consumers in this thin slice of the market get this wider, preferential shopping window.
The extension, announced last weekend, is available thanks to MNsure — the state’s new health insurance marketplace — and the state’s health plans. Tuesday had been the deadline to buy coverage through MNsure for a plan that begins Jan. 1. But MNsure customers now have until Dec. 28; those buying from some insurers directly have until the end of the month. Consumers who buy individual plans are generally those who don’t get health insurance through employers or Medicare, the federal program for seniors. The MNsure extension is not due to website glitches. Instead, it’s designed to give consumers time to carefully evaluate health plans and the financial assistance that may be available to help them buy coverage. Subsidies that act like instant discounts on monthly premiums are available only on plans sold on MNsure. Providing extra time will ensure access to this aid. With insurers extending the time frame for plans sold outside MNsure, confused buyers might have missed out on assistance.
Since MNsure’s launch in 2013, individual market consumers have repeatedly been given far more time to pick a plan than Minnesotans who get employer-provided health insurance. Open enrollment for job-provided coverage typically ends in November. As most employees know, extensions are rare.
Next year’s initial deadline for individual market coverage starting Jan. 1, 2017, should be respected. Consumers have had several years to adjust to MNsure and new financial assistance available through the Affordable Care Act. Leaving in place what will likely be a mid-December deadline for buying 2017 coverage, and having insurers match it, would reduce consumer confusion. More enrollment processing time also would help smooth “back end” information transfers, a technical process has been problematic but is vital for ensuring consumer information relayed between MNsure and insurers is accurate.
In addition, MNsure and insurers would be able to use staffing resources more efficiently and avoid having to scramble to beef up call centers at the last minute, which can increase administrative expenses.
It’s important to note that individual market customers can continue to buy on MNsure and insurers through Jan. 31. There’s a trade-off, though. Coverage won’t begin on Jan. 1, potentially leaving some consumers without insurance while they wait for their new policies to go into effect. Those who qualify for medical assistance can also sign up year-round on MNsure.
Repeatedly extending MNsure’s shopping deadline has been valuable as consumers new to insurance coverage negotiated the learning curve. But next year, it’s time to set a firm deadline for plans sold on and off the exchange — and then stick to it.