MNsure enrollment events last year got noisy, as exasperated consumers sat for hours listening to on-hold music while waiting for help from an overwhelmed call center.

On Saturday, an enrollment event at the downtown St. Paul center was quiet by comparison — almost sleepy.

“It seems to be going better than last year,” said health insurance navigator James Albrecht, standing in a room filled with 12 computer stations but just a couple of health plan shoppers.

MNsure’s launch of open enrollment featured short waits at the call center, an improved website and reports of just a few problems here and there. After last year’s troubles, the quiet launch was a relief, MNsure chief executive Scott Leitz said during a news conference in St. Paul.

“We successfully opened our doors this morning at 8 a.m., without any major issues that we’re aware of,” Letiz said. “The site itself is faster. It’s more stable. … We’re also fully staffed in our call center.”

Minnesota created the MNsure health exchange in 2013 to implement the federal Affordable Care Act, which requires almost all Americans to have health insurance or pay a tax penalty.

As Nettie Pegors, a sales representative with UCare, an insurer based in Minneapolis, sat at a computer terminal Saturday morning, the improvements quickly came into focus.

It’s easier to create accounts on the MNsure website and complete applications for coverage, Pegors said. There are also improved tools for consumers to learn about the features of different policies, she said. Such improvements are good news for UCare, which has cut its premium prices this fall in hopes of selling more policies through MNsure.

Even so, Pegors’ colleague Carla Foster hit a snag around 8:30 a.m. when trying to fill out a new application for an account she’d created last year. An error message told her to phone the MNsure call center, where an operator wasn’t immediately able to resolve the problem.

“There are still glitches,” said Foster, who’s also a sales representative at UCare. “But it seems better.”

During the first three hours at the St. Paul enrollment event, counselors helped a total of five people get health insurance, said Albrecht, who works for a nonprofit called Portico Healthnet. The group’s enrollment events last year featured numerous phones placed on speaker mode, as clients waited for help from MNsure. But navigators on Saturday morning didn’t need to place a single call to MNsure, Albrecht said.

Insurance agent Heidi Michaels wasn’t so lucky.

It took nearly 30 minutes on the phone with MNsure to sort out a problem with a client’s password, Michaels said. Once the client completed her application for coverage, the woman learned she wouldn’t qualify for tax credits to discount her premium costs.

The experience was frustrating, Michaels said, both for the time involved, plus the fact that MNsure has been telling people that more will qualify for subsidies in 2015. In the end, the woman bypassed MNsure, Michaels said, and bought directly from an insurance company.

“The website performance is better. It’s faster,” said Michaels, who is president-elect of the Minnesota Association of Health Underwriters, a trade group for insurance agents. “But there are still little complaints.”

MNsure officials said it doesn’t usually take 30 minutes to reset a password, and suggested that the problem was an anomaly. Leitz said that while some consumers were getting error messages Saturday, most problems were quickly resolved by the MNsure call center.

As of 3 p.m. Saturday, about 200 people had enrolled in coverage through MNsure. More than 1,500 calls were answered by the call center, and the website had 11,516 unique visitors.

Looking ahead

If the first day of open enrollment was relatively successful for MNsure, that doesn’t mean the exchange is out of the woods. First-year problems in Minnesota and at other health exchanges across the country amounted to “a relatively easy challenge to fix,” said Tim Michaels, a health industry consultant with PwC in Minneapolis.

“I think where the bigger problems are likely to surface this year — if they do — will be in those eligibility determinations and the back-end integration with the carriers,” Tim Michaels said during a Friday interview. “And that stuff will be difficult to tell for the first several weeks, if not the first couple months.”

MNsure has a particular problem because most of its enrollees will automatically renew into plans that aren’t being offered on the exchange during 2015. To secure its financial future, MNsure needs those consumers to come back to the exchange. But drumming up interest could be tough.

“I think I see the initial traffic being significantly slower than it was last year,” Tim Michaels said. “I think there’s less pent-up demand than there was last year.

“And I think there’s a bunch of folks who … are going to fall into the automatic re-enroll bucket, and may not go back to the site at all.”


Twitter: @chrissnowbeck