Aiming to give Minnesotans every possible chance to buy health insurance before the March 31 deadline, MNsure officials on Monday said they will grant some flexibility to those making a good-faith effort to buy coverage when the clock strikes midnight that night.

MNsure interim CEO Scott Leitz stressed the state insurance exchange isn't softening the deadline. He compared the newly announced steps to allowing people to vote if they're standing in line when the polls close.

"If a consumer can show that they have attempted to obtain coverage before the deadline, we will make sure they can complete their enrollment," he said.

The deadline for Minnesotans to purchase private health insurance under the federal health law is Monday at 11:59 p.m. Central Standard Time.

Minnesotans who fail to enroll in a plan by then will be locked out of insurance coverage until next January at the earliest, unless they are poor or their existing insurance changes, such as through a job change, having a baby or getting married or divorced.

The deadline applies to shopping on the MNsure exchange as well as for those working with a broker or buying directly from an insurance carrier.

Those who miss the deadline could face a tax penalty of $95 or 1 percent of household income, whichever is higher. They'll also have to pay 100 percent of the medical bill if they get sick or injured.

The state is working with insurance companies to extend the deadline under limited situations. Officials laid out several steps consumers can take to show proof that they were stymied from getting through the process.

Generally, Minnesotans can be assured they will not face a penalty if they have tried to create an account on MNsure, submitted paperwork through a navigator or broker, sent e-mails to MNsure about their problems, have contacted the MNsure call center, or are in the midst of an appeal.

MNsure's website now has a link to a form consumers can fill out if they are having trouble.

In a statement Monday, Gov. Mark Dayton said: "I strongly support MNsure's decision to extend the enrollment period for Minnesotans who have tried to enroll in health care coverage by the March 31st deadline."

Republican lawmakers Rep. Tara Mack of Apple Valley and Joe Hoppe of Chaska last week called on Dayton to extend the deadline so that Minnesotans wouldn't be stuck facing fines because of technical problems.

Other states and the federal government also are exploring ways to grant more leeway to those who started the process but ran into problems. Oregon is seeking a federal waiver to extend open enrollment to April. Nevada, Vermont, Massachusetts and Washington also are looking for extensions.

Leitz said Minnesota believes it has authority to add the renewed flexibility without applying for a waiver or exemption from the federal government.

Stuck in 'pending'

The extra leeway could help people like Clark Ericksen, who is one of nearly 1,000 Minnesotans whose applications are considered "pending."

Ericksen, of Glenville, Minn., thought he had enrolled in a Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota plan after using a credit card to pay his premium through the MNsure website on Jan. 15.

He never got his insurance card, but he did get a bill in mid-February. He paid that as well, thinking it was his second month's premium. But MNsure called in March, and said he'd need to restart his application from scratch.

By then, Erickson had gone to the doctor for a yearly physical and was stuck with a $675 bill that included blood work.

"I'm not happy with this thing at all," he said.

130,000 signed up

More than 130,000 Minnesotans have signed up for coverage using the MNsure website. Although technical issues have improved and wait times at call centers have been reduced, many people are still running into problems. Brokers and navigators say it can sometimes take several days for consumers to gather the necessary paperwork or to complete the process. Those with language barriers and complicated family insurance needs may require more time as well.

Those eligible for public programs can enroll at any time, but officials urge Minnesotans not to wait.

The federal government is offering tax credits for low- to moderate-income earners that lower the cost of buying insurance. Tax credits are available only for plans bought on the MNsure website. Consumers can access the credits by shopping on themselves or by working with a broker, community-based navigator.

Credits available on a sliding scale for an individual earning up to $45,960 or a family of three with household income of $87,120, for example.