The state’s MNsure exchange steered more than 1,400 people toward public and private health insurance coverage on Monday, the first day of a special enrollment period designed for uninsured Minnesotans to get covered as COVID-19 spreads.

MNsure doesn’t collect data on why people use the health insurance exchange, but the numbers could reflect a mix of motives ranging from those seeking new coverage after recently losing jobs to people concerned about health costs with the pandemic.

The sign-ups came during a week when Minnetonka-based UnitedHealthcare, the nation’s largest health insurer, said it was responding to COVID-19 by launching a special enrollment period that could let some people get into coverage via employer health plans.

“Right now, under the circumstances, I think it is a big deal,” said Roger Feldman, an emeritus professor of health policy at the University of Minnesota, referring to the United announcement as well as MNsure sign-ups due to COVID-19.

“The circumstances are that a lot of people who sign up are probably going to be high users of health care services,” Feldman said, “and it won’t take too many of them to use a lot of care.”

Run by the state government, MNsure is an online marketplace where people who don’t get coverage from an employer can buy health insurance or learn if they might qualify for state public programs.

On Monday, MNsure determined that 815 individuals seeking coverage likely qualify for Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare, state-subsidized health insurance for lower-income residents and those in poverty. Enrollment in the programs is open throughout the year and is not limited to the special enrollment period.

In addition, the state’s health insurance exchange processed sign-ups by 653 individuals for private health plans sold by nonprofit health insurers. An unspecified number of those sign-ups stemmed from life events such as job losses that make individuals eligible for special enrollment at any time, a MNsure spokeswoman said.

Insurance policies being sold via MNsure are available at the same prices as those sold during open enrollment at the end of last year. Many who buy on MNsure qualify for federal subsidies under the federal Affordable Care Act, which provided funding for Minnesota to launch the exchange in 2014.

The 815 people routed by MNsure toward the public programs don’t necessarily have coverage yet, MNsure said, since they may need to verify information to activate benefits.

It’s not clear how many people losing jobs this month might opt for public programs. Many will have the option for 60 days to trigger continuing health benefits under COBRA, as long as their former employer maintains the plan with some active enrollees, said Joshua Haberman, president of the Minnesota Association of Health Underwriters, a trade group for health insurance agents.

Last week, MNsure announced a special enrollment period related to COVID-19 for individuals seeking private coverage that started Monday. Residents can select a health plan by April 21 for coverage beginning April 1. (Sign-ups next month trigger coverage that’s retroactive to the first of the month.)

Coverage via MNsure comes from four carriers selling on the exchange: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, HealthPartners, Medica and UCare.

In recent weeks, health insurers across the country have committed to waiving out-of-pocket costs for people who need coronavirus testing. UnitedHealthcare said Tuesday it’s launching a special enrollment period (SEP) that could let some people in employer groups access benefits as COVID-19 spreads.

“The SEP is voluntary for all fully-insured employers,” UnitedHealthcare said in a statement. “Self-funded customers may choose to amend their eligibility requirements to align with this special enrollment period at their discretion.”

The Minnetonka-based health insurer Medica said Wednesday it’s also considering a special enrollment period for commercial customers. Responding to a Star Tribune question, a Medica spokesman said the insurer has not seen evidence yet of employers dropping coverage altogether due to economic turmoil with COVID-19.

“However, we track closely and expect to see group terminations as the situation worsens and continues,” Medica said in a statement.


Twitter: @chrissnowbeck