State officials said the latest tally of Minnesotans signing up for health insurance through MNsure is up over last year, suggesting that consumers are responding to lower premiums in the state's individual health insurance market.
The growth thus far in Minnesota's numbers contrasts with results reported this week by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which is seeing enrollment declines across more than 30 states that use the federal government's health insurance exchange.
Saturday marks the deadline for people to buy individual health insurance policies that take effect Jan. 1, although MNsure's open enrollment period will extend into January for coverage that starts the following month.
"The story that we're seeing at the national level is not the Minnesota story," Nate Clark, the MNsure chief executive, said in an interview. "We think we're on track to do better than we did last year."
Minnesota launched the MNsure health insurance exchange in 2014 as part of the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA). The exchange is a government-run website that people can use to shop for individual insurance policies, which provide coverage to people under age 65 who are self-employed or don't get health insurance from their employer.
The 2017 tax bill passed by the GOP-led Congress and signed by President Donald Trump repealed tax penalties in the ACA for people who lack coverage starting next year. That change, along with a strong job market and reduced marketing and outreach efforts by the federal government, are likely factors in the smaller sign-up numbers at the federal government's health exchange.
On Wednesday, CMS said the number of new consumers is off 20 percent and overall health plan selections are down 12 percent through the first six weeks of enrollment compared with last year.
At MNsure, overall health plan selections during the current open enrollment stood at 109,412 on Thursday, up about 4 percent compared with the same date last year. The comparison is somewhat imprecise, since consumers last year had until Dec. 20 to buy coverage through MNsure that took effect Jan. 1, so any last-minute shopping rush likely came a bit later last year.
In mid-November, MNsure reported numbers showing a decline of roughly 50 percent in the number of new customers buying insurance through the health exchange, which people use to select policies from private insurers. MNsure officials attributed the shortfall to a busy Medicare enrollment season in Minnesota, where insurance agents and brokers have been helping more than 300,000 people pick a new plan.
The latest numbers from MNsure show the number of new customers has been growing — 14,260 plan selections among new customers as of Thursday amounts to a decline of 15 percent compared with last year, according to MNsure officials.
"Our activity on the website and the phones has been strong," Clark said. "Things have been going very, very smoothly."
The Kaiser Family Foundation says the average benchmark premium across Minnesota in 2019 for a 40-year-old nonsmoker will be $326 per month, a decline of 15 percent from the comparable rate this year. Across the country, the average monthly premium for a 40-year-old nonsmoker next year will be $477, a decline of less than 1 percent.
The MNsure call center will have extended deadline day hours on Saturday, opening at 8 a.m. and fielding calls until midnight. Any caller on hold at midnight will still receive help so they can purchase coverage that begins Jan. 1, Clark said.
After Saturday, people can still buy coverage through MNsure until Jan. 13, although coverage with those policies won't take effect until Feb. 1. Saturday is the last chance for shoppers on the federal government's exchange.
The Trump administration cut spending for marketing related to the ACA coverage for last year's open enrollment, and cut spending for health insurance "navigators" for this open enrollment period, said Cynthia Cox, a health policy researcher with the Kaiser Family Foundation. In Minnesota, MNsure has maintained a strong marketing and outreach efforts to promote coverage under the health law, Clark said.
People who buy through MNsure can quality for tax credits in the ACA that discount premium costs. Individuals earning up to $48,560 a year, or a family of four earning up to $100,400 a year, could qualify for the subsidies.