MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesotans can start shopping for coverage via the state-run health insurance exchange MNsure when its second open enrollment period launches at 8 a.m. Saturday.
MNsure’s main theme this time is: “95 percent of Minnesotans now have health insurance. 100 percent need it.” Here are some things consumers should know as they consider their options for 2015:
WILL THE SYSTEM BE READY?
MNsure officials have been expressing cautious optimism that consumers will have a much better experience than they did during last year’s rocky inaugural season, which was marred by serious technical problems and inadequate call center staffing. They say their team has been working 24/7 to prepare. They don’t guarantee there won’t be problems, but extensive testing will continue right up to the scheduled 8 a.m. launch.
WHO SHOULD VISIT THE SITE?
MNsure officials say everybody shopping for private plans should, whether to renew existing coverage, pick a new plan or sign up for the first time. MNsure is the only place where people can determine whether they qualify for financial assistance, and how much.
Premiums will be higher for most consumers given that PreferredOne, which used unsustainably low premiums to grab 59 percent of the 2014 signups, has pulled out of the exchange.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota will raise its premiums an average of 17.2 percent. HealthPartners’ rate increases average 8.1 percent. Medica’s will rise 1.8 percent. UCare’s average premiums will fall 9.1 percent. But more financial help is available. MNsure says most people will qualify for subsidies, even if they didn’t last time, and for many it could be enough to cancel out or at least soften the increases.
Nearly 56,000 Minnesotans signed up for private plans for 2014. MNsure projects another 50,000 this year.
WHAT HELP IS AVAILABLE?
MNsure will have more than 300 customer service representatives available, compared with only 22 for the inaugural launch. But comparison shopping and enrolling will still be daunting for many people.
So MNsure encourages consumers to take advantage of its thousands of trained “assisters” statewide who can provide free help to guide them through the signup process. A searchable directory will be on the website. MNsure will also hold sign-up events.
WHAT SHOULD CONSUMERS DO IF THEY’RE IN MEDICAL ASSISTANCE OR
Wait. The more than 300,000 Minnesotans who have signed up for those public programs for lower income people via MNsure don’t have to do anything until they hear directly from the Department of Human Services, which will contact them if it needs more information.
People eligible for the programs can enroll any time, not just during open enrollment, but they are required to have insurance like everyone else.
WHAT’S NEW WITH MESSAGING THIS YEAR?
Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox are gone. This year’s ads start running in earnest Sunday. They include three TV commercials touting the value of insurance, as well as billboards and transit stop ads. MNsure is making a new digital push to reach the “young invincibles” who are required to have insurance but often don’t.
Online ads will be all over sites frequented by younger people, communities of color and people who speak English as a second language. People can sign up for text messages to get reminders and other information by texting “ENROLL” to 30644. MNsure’s research shows that uninsured people are most easily reached via their cellphones.
WHAT ARE THE INSURANCE COMPANIES DOING?
Five insurance plans will offer policies via MNsure for 2015: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, Blue Plus, HealthPartners, Medica and UCare. More plans will be available than last time. Blue Cross recently opened a retail store in Edina that will help people sign up for its plans via MNsure or buy them directly.
The store has already drawn early birds who are doing their homework. Blue Cross’ Blue Plus subsidiary, which is new to the exchange, offers plans that are cheaper because of their narrower provider networks. Medica is promoting its new “Medica with Mayo Clinic” plan in southern Minnesota, which it’s offering on and off the exchange. HealthPartners has added products that will be available via MNsure but is focusing its promotional work on its off-exchange plans and its new online tools. It recently launched a “Make Good Happen” advertising campaign to try to differentiate itself as an organization that helps consumers make good things happen in their own lives.
WHAT IF I DON’T QUALIFY FOR SUBSIDIES?
For consumers who know for certain that their income is too high, such as a family of four with an annual income over $95,400, it may be simpler to bypass MNsure, especially if it proves to be buggy.
Carriers participating in MNsure will sell the same policies directly. Or consumers can go to licensed brokers and agents who sell policies from multiple carriers. But anyone who qualifies for subsidies needs to buy via MNsure, and MNsure is the only place to find out for sure if they’re eligible.
HOW LONG DOES OPEN
Through Feb. 15. But consumers have only until Dec. 15 to sign up for coverage that takes effect Jan. 1.