MNsure has already exceeded last year's tally for sign-ups in private health plans, as more consumers faced with big premium jumps apparently are turning to the state's health insurance exchange for financial help.
On Monday, MNsure announced that 67,680 people had signed up for private coverage through the government-run marketplace during the current open enrollment period.
That's a much faster pace than last year, and suggests that MNsure might hit its current 2016 goal of 83,000 enrollees, a target that's far less than what supporters envisioned when the exchange was created in 2013.
"I think they have a good shot at it," said Chris Sloan, a manager at Avalere, a health care consulting firm in Washington, D.C. "Even if they don't quite get [to the goal], it still looks like it's going to be a big increase over last year."
Minnesota launched the MNsure health insurance exchange to implement the federal Affordable Care Act, which requires almost all Americans to have health insurance or pay a tax penalty.
It's an option for the roughly 300,000 state residents who purchase private health insurance on their own, outside of employer groups.
MNsure has repeatedly lowered its enrollment projections over the past two years, prompting Republicans to question whether MNsure is financially viable. A key source of revenue for the exchange is a 3.5 percent tax on premiums.
In the past, enrollment has fallen short of projections due in part to technical problems with the MNsure website, but also because the cost of private health insurance in Minnesota has been relatively low. That means fewer people here have qualified for federal tax credits that are a primary driver of traffic to MNsure and exchanges in other states.
The dynamic is changing with big premium jumps of 41 percent on average for 2016.
"More Minnesotans than ever before now qualify for help paying monthly premiums, and by law MNsure is the only place to get that help," said Jim Schowalter of the Minnesota Council of Health Plans, a trade group for health insurers. "In previous years, Minnesota's premiums were so much lower than the rest of the country, not as many people got help."
Minnesota has been unique among states in seeing a large share of people buying individual policies directly from insurers in what is known as the "off-exchange" market. It's not clear whether the growth MNsure reported Monday stems from more people moving out of the "off-exchange" market, Schowalter said, or because more uninsured people are buying coverage.
Currently, about 5 percent of state residents lack health insurance. In 2016, penalties under the federal health law for lacking coverage will increase.
The MNsure numbers are noteworthy because 40 percent of those buying are new to the exchange, whereas the comparable number on the federal government's HealthCare.gov website is 29 percent, said Cynthia Cox of the Kaiser Family Foundation.
HealthCare.gov serves as the exchange for most states. Concerns about a lack of growth in exchanges across the country were highlighted late last year by Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group, which said it might withdraw from the government-run marketplaces.
"This suggests that enrollment for MNsure will be stronger than it had been previously, and it's growing faster than the national average," Cox said. "The other side of that is, the starting place was not as strong for MNsure."
"There had been relatively low enrollment in MNsure during the first two years relative to the national average," she said.
State Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, who has led criticism of MNsure in the Legislature, said he was not reassured by the numbers released Monday.
Dean questioned the figures because they include some automatic renewals that likely won't result in paying customers for MNsure. Plus, there continues to be a "disconnect," he said, between happy reports coming from MNsure leaders and the struggles of middle-class families trying to find affordable health insurance.
MNsure also has struggled in recent weeks, Dean said, with technology problems and what he called "incredibly disrespectful customer service."
In the last two days of open enrollment for coverage that starts in January, MNsure's call center had average wait times of 50 minutes and one hour.
Part of the problem is that the Dec. 28 deadline came as thousands of people enrolled in public health insurance programs were learning that their coverage was being suspended, said Allison O'Toole, the MNsure chief executive. A significant chunk of those consumers called MNsure for help, O'Toole said.
Plus, on deadline day, an ice storm in Illinois significantly cut staffing at a vendor that provides overflow call center services to MNsure.
"We will be fully staffed around both deadlines [in January] and leading up to them," she said.
When lawmakers created MNsure early in 2013, a consultant projected that about 450,000 people would be covered by private policies through the exchange by 2016.
In its first year of operation, MNsure saw about 50,000 people sign-up for private health plans during open enrollment, and the figure grew to about 60,000 people by the end of last year's sign-up period.
The enrollment tally released Monday isn't a final figure, because open enrollment continues through Jan. 31.
"Right now, we're on track," O'Toole said. "We are encouraged that we're going to hit our 83,000."