Attentive Minnesotans likely felt jolted by a headline that appeared on the front page of this newspaper last week: “MNsure racing, again, to fix its tech glitches.”
The report on a Wednesday meeting of the MNsure board offered only modest assurance that the state health exchange launched last year to implement the federal Affordable Care Act would be ready for prime time when open enrollment begins Nov. 15.
“This is going to be a high-risk project. And we are going to use that full runway up until the go-live date,” Jesse Oman of MN.IT, the state’s information technology agency, told the board.
Brace yourselves, Minnesotans, but also be aware that a lot of important work has already been done to prevent a repeat of the MNsure meltdown last fall. And for qualified consumers who do not have insurance as part of an employer group, buying insurance through the exchange is the only way to receive federal tax credit assistance to help cover premium costs.
MNsure’s much-dissected failure to reliably take flight last year not only eroded public confidence in the exchange but also created a punching bag for critics of the ACA and became a key issue in the gubernatorial campaign.
Problems with the website and an understaffed call center angered thousands of consumers and led to needed leadership changes at MNsure. The breakdowns revealed that the previous leadership team had relied too heavily on untested technology to serve consumers in the new marketplace.
In a meeting with the Star Tribune Editorial Board last week, current MNsure Chief Executive Scott Leitz said the IT work so critical to the success of the exchange website is “light years” ahead of where it was last year. Yes, there are risks that further problems will surface, Leitz said, but the site is faster and more stable today.
In addition, Leitz and his team have smartly expanded the call center from 22 people last year to nearly 300, and a network of nearly 3,000 insurance brokers and system “navigators” have been trained and certified to assist consumers at locations statewide, with a special emphasis on immigrant communities. So if the technology proves ineffective again this year, or if consumers simply feel more comfortable dealing with a human being, there will be more phone and walk-in options.
Although this page will withhold judgment on the effectiveness of the exchange until it passes the open-enrollment test, we encourage consumers to put it to the test, beginning Nov. 15.
Leitz emphasized that consumers who previously bought insurance on the exchange should shop again for 2015 plans because the offerings — and rates — will have changed. Consumers will also need to reapply for federal tax subsidies, and Leitz said more Minnesotans are expected to qualify for credits that can offset premium increases. But, again, those benefits are available only through the exchange, which had nearly 370,000 people enrolled in public and private insurance as of last week.
Completing a new round of MNsure shopping is especially important for customers of PreferredOne, the Golden Valley-based insurer whose decision to stop doing business on the exchange created a firestorm in September. The company sold about 32,000, or 60 percent, of all commercial policies bought through MNsure this year.
Those existing policies will be automatically renewed by PreferredOne “outside” the exchange, but policyholders who qualify for tax credits will be out of luck. To emphasize the need for MNsure staff to clearly communicate that fact, board chairman Brian Beutner said at last week’s meeting, “If they don’t come to us, they’re going to get screwed.”
As its second open enrollment nears, MNsure remains a work in progress. The exchange’s website still cannot easily process “life changes,” such as when a customer needs to add a baby to a plan, although the call center should be able to do so relatively quickly. And more work needs to be done to make the website more efficient for brokers, counties and others involved in enrollment.
Fortunately, there should be a less intense political focus on MNsure postelection, and the re-election of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton means any legislative efforts to repeal the law that created the exchange would be fruitless.
Instead, the exchange’s board and staff can concentrate on providing the kind of consumer-focused service that’s necessary for MNsure to reach its potential. Avoiding a rerun of last year’s disaster is step one.
A BETTER MNSURE
“Last year’s system was built on sand. It was not foundationally stable. It was not fast. It did not have fast Web loading … and it wasn’t tested. … The core system of MNsure [today] is a much, much, much more stable system and a much faster system and a much more consumer-friendly system than what opened for business on 10 / 1.”
SCOTT LEITZ, MNsure chief executive