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More than 16,000 people have applied for public and private health insurance through MNsure during a special enrollment period launched late last month in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

MNsure, which is the government-run exchange for individuals to obtain health insurance, launched special enrollment so uninsured people could get covered with the public health crisis.

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Although the program was designed to potentially reduce the number of uninsured residents at a time when many might need health care, it appears that a number of newly unemployed people are among those signing up.

Health exchange users don't specify why they are using MNsure, but more than 1,800 people have been eligible to enroll in private health plans because of certain "life events," a category that includes job loss.

"We do not have a breakdown between individuals in that situation vs. other life events like having a baby, adding a spouse, etc.," a MNsure spokeswoman wrote by e-mail.

Since the special enrollment period started March 23, about 16,600 people have used the MNsure system to enroll in private coverage or apply for one of the state's public health insurance programs. About 12,000 people have been routed to the state's Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare programs, which cover lower-income state residents.

About 4,500 have enrolled in private coverage, including about 2,700 through the special enrollment period for the COVID-19 emergency.

"I think the much higher number of people enrolling in public programs is a function of ... jobs being lost as the economy slows dramatically," Joshua Haberman, an insurance agent who is president of the Minnesota Association of Health Underwriters, said in an e-mail. "I do not think anyone should be surprised that there are far fewer people who are able to afford [private health plans] when the economy and jobs are under this much strain."

About 355,000 Minnesotans have filed unemployment claims since March 16. Some may have the option for 60 days to trigger continuing health benefits under COBRA, as long as their former employer maintains the plan with some active enrollees.

People can apply for enrollment in public insurance programs via MNsure at any time but may need to verify information to activate benefits. With the special enrollment period for COVID-19, residents have until April 21 to select a health plan via MNsure for coverage that's retroactive to April 1.

People who have recently lost or will lose insurance through their employer might qualify for special enrollment because of that life event, but they must contact MNsure and pick a plan within 60 days of losing employer coverage. To avoid a gap, people can "contact MNsure up to 60 days in advance of your employer's plan ending to begin the enrollment process," MNsure said in a statement.

MNsure is an online marketplace where people who don't get coverage from an employer can buy health insurance or learn if they might qualify for state public programs. It was launched as part of the federal Affordable Care Act, which provides subsidies for many who buy coverage through a government-run exchange.

Minnesota's MNsure is one of 11 exchanges run by different states that have created a special enrollment period because of concerns about the new coronavirus.

"MNsure opened a special enrollment period to provide Minnesotans with the opportunity to obtain comprehensive health insurance coverage during these uncertain times," the agency said in a statement. "At this point in time, we are seeing strong interest."

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744

Twitter: @chrissnowbeck