Thousands of Minnesotans closed out 2014 by scrambling to iron out health insurance details for the new year — and not without some headaches along the way.
By 1 p.m. on Wednesday, more than 5,000 people had phoned the MNsure health exchange with questions.
The average wait time was about 20 minutes, said MNsure spokeswoman Jenni Bowring-McDonough, although some individuals reported being on hold much longer. The half-day tally was higher than total calls on most days at MNsure, but short of the recent peak in volume on Dec. 15 with more than 17,000 calls.
Eagan-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota was fielding twice the usual volume of calls on Wednesday, with average waits in excess of 30 minutes.
"Clearly that's not where we would like it to be, but it's a reflection of the last-minute surge of enrollment and people wanting to clarify that they are all set for Jan. 1 coverage," wrote Jim McManus, a Blue Cross spokesman, in an e-mail.
The insurer believes that about 53 percent of those signing up for private health plans through MNsure have selected Blue Cross. Invoices and ID cards for those subscribers won't be issued until mid-January, McManus said.
Individuals had until noon on Wednesday to purchase policies through MNsure that take effect Jan. 1. Blue Cross and two other health insurers were planning to sell off-exchange policies until midnight.
Minnesota launched the MNsure exchange last year to implement the federal Affordable Care Act, which requires almost all Americans to have health insurance or pay a tax penalty. People can satisfy the mandate by purchasing through MNsure or directly from an insurer, but tax credits are only available through the exchange.
On Wednesday, insurance agents and navigators said the MNsure website and call center handled the last minute enrollment surge better than last year, but said there were problems.
"The functionality is still extremely poor," said Heidi Michaels, an agent with Dyste Williams in Minneapolis. Michaels, who is president-elect of the trade group for insurance agents in Minnesota, added: "That's kind of a sad statement to make — it's better than last year, but it's still not very good."
Rebecca Lozano, an insurance navigator with Portico Healthnet in St. Paul, said her office wasn't overly busy on Wednesday. But on Monday and Tuesday, some clients struggled to get applications completed online due to what seemed like problems with the MNsure system.
Some clients worked for two to three hours on an application, she said, only to hit an error message telling them to start over.
"It was very frustrating for people," Lozano said, adding that such problems were intermittent. "We have been able to get people through."
Joe Campbell, a spokesman for MNsure, said he believed that such incidents were isolated. The enrollment surge caused a general slowdown in the website for users, Campbell said, but the system remained stable.
"None of the issues were widespread, system-related," he wrote in an e-mail. "Sometimes Web pages time out. Sometimes you need to restart the browser. As we've said since Day One, it isn't perfect."
As of Friday, a total of 26,455 people had purchased private health insurance policies through the exchange for 2015. According to MNsure's current budget plan, the exchange must enroll 67,000 in private coverage.
Charles Gaba of ACASignUps.net, a website that tracks health exchange enrollment across the country, wrote in a blog post Tuesday that he was "starting to get a bit concerned about Minnesota."
"I assume will be some sort of surge today and tomorrow," Gaba wrote, "but I was expecting them to be doing a bit better at this point."
Campbell said earlier this week that it's too soon to evaluate MNsure's progress toward the goal. Final numbers for coverage that starts Jan. 1 won't be released until Monday.
People can still use MNsure to buy health plans until Feb. 15. Starting Wednesday afternoon, MNsure started to automatically re-enroll in health plans people who subscribed through the exchange in 2014 and didn't come back to select a new option.
"I don't know how many to expect," Campbell wrote in an e-mail. "Safe to say several thousand."
In recent weeks, insurers have warned that invoices and ID cards won't arrive before coverage is scheduled to begin Thursday for many who've enrolled through MNsure. The delays are due to both the short time between the sign-up deadline and the start date for coverage, plus problems with the accuracy of data being sent from MNsure to the insurers.
Wendy Wicks, a spokeswoman for Minneapolis-based UCare, said Wednesday that the enrollment data is improving. UCare has sent about 6,000 invoices thus far.
People who need care before they get their ID cards are being advised to contact their insurance company. There were similar delays in issuing invoices and ID cards for subscribers last year at this time.