Despite opposition from the state's human services commissioner, the MNsure board voted Wednesday to consider tapping an outside vendor to offer online tools that would help shoppers compare health insurance options.

The MNsure website already lets people compare health plans from different insurance companies before buying coverage.

Outside vendors have tools that could help MNsure users get a deeper understanding of those options, said board member Thompson Aderinkomi, including the trade-off between low premiums and high deductibles.

There's concern that too many people buying coverage through health exchanges have been lured into buying low-premium coverage that requires significant out-of-pocket costs when people need care.

"Don't just look at the premium — you get what you pay for," Aderinkomi said after a board meeting Wednesday in St. Paul. "There are nuances and complexities involved with health insurance that consumers have trouble understanding. There are third-party vendors that offer experience and technology that make it easier for a consumer to understand what are the trade-offs."

MNsure would not pay the outside vendor. Instead, the state's health exchange would partner with companies that offer free plan comparison tools online, Aderinkomi said.

Board member Lucinda Jesson, who is also the state's human services commissioner, said she liked the idea of the consumer tools, but she voted against a motion to make it a priority. Jesson said she worried that work on the tools could diminish staff time for IT improvements that benefit people enrolling in Medicaid and MinnesotaCare coverage.

The online tools would be available only to people buying commercial health insurance through MNsure, not to those enrolling in public health insurance programs. Currently, people can use the MNsure website to determine eligibility for public programs, but Jesson said they can't use it to choose between health plan options in Medicaid and MinnesotaCare.

"We have to mail stuff out to them. They have to mail it back," said Jesson, whose department administers the programs. Adding shopping tools to the commercial side of the website raises a question of "fundamental fairness," she said, especially since 90 percent of those who get coverage through MNsure land in public programs.

But board member Kathryn Duevel said Wednesday she believed state IT staff would need to invest a relatively small amount of time to make the connection with the outside vendor.

The board voted 5-2 to add online tools to a list of about 18 priority fixes to the MNsure IT system.

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744

Twitter: @chrissnowbeck