More than 23,000 people sought health insurance via MNsure during a special enrollment period that was designed for uninsured Minnesotans concerned about the widening COVID-19 pandemic.

The enrollment period, which ended Tuesday, coincided with rampant job losses across the state that likely pushed more people to seek coverage on their own. Depending on household income levels, individuals applying through MNsure are steered toward a state public program or private insurers.

Final numbers released Wednesday show the bulk of those applying during the special enrollment period were headed toward state-funded coverage. During open enrollment each of the last three years, a majority of people using MNsure were steered toward private health plans — a change that could be part of a broader shift from commercial health plans to government-funded health insurance.

“MNsure does not have an analy­sis on why there are more public program applicants than [private coverage] applicants,” officials said in a statement to the Star Tribune. “This [special enrollment period] and the context within which we offered it is very unlike our regular [open enrollment periods], so we do not believe that we can draw any real comparisons between them.”

Run by the state government, MNsure is an online marketplace where people who don’t get coverage from an employer can buy private insurance or learn if they qualify for the state’s Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare programs. Minnesota launched the exchange in late 2013 as part of the federal Affordable Care Act.

Numbers released Wednesday show that about 13,739 people who used MNsure during the special enrollment period likely qualify for a public program. Those applications must still be finalized.

In addition, roughly 9,500 people enrolled in private coverage. Of those, about 6,000 people took advantage of the special enrollment period for COVID-19; another 3,500 qualified for special enrollment by virtue of a “life event” such as lost employment.

The public programs are administered by the state’s Department of Human Services, which expects to release a revised forecast in early May on whether COVID-19 might affect enrollments. Enrollment in the public programs typically grows during economic downturns, said Lynn Blewett, a health policy researcher at the University of Minnesota.

“The current pandemic is creating both an economic crisis and a health crisis,” Blewett said by e-mail.

On Wednesday, officials with local health insurers HealthPartners and Medica said it’s too soon to say whether the dramatic slowdown in the state’s economy might force some employers to stop offering benefits.

Minnetonka-based UnitedHealthcare, which is the nation’s largest health insurer, said earlier this month that it’s starting to see signs of financial stress among employers struggling to make premium payments.

Joshua Haberman, president of the Minnesota Association of Health Underwriters, said many small employers have been confronting deadlines this week for paying May premiums.

“Time is getting short and the May bills will be a problem without the [federal Paycheck Protection Program] money flowing or the economy beginning to open up again,” Haberman said via e-mail. “It is the ripple effects that people don’t anticipate that become the most challenging.”

During the second half of the special enrollment period, there was an increase in MNsure users who were directed toward private coverage rather than public programs. That could be due to government payments, Haberman said, that push some above the income cutoff for MinnesotaCare.

More broadly, Haberman said he was surprised more people didn’t turn to MNsure during the special enrollment period, since more than 300,000 people in recent weeks have applied for unemployment benefits.

Minnesotans can apply for Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare anytime during the year. Special enrollment in private coverage through MNsure remains an option for people who experience certain qualifying life events such as job loss.


Twitter: @chrissnowbeck