AP News

MNsure site improving, but budget remains shaky


ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota lawmakers warned leaders of the state's health exchange Wednesday that they need to figure out how to cover a possible budget shortfall, as insurance enrollment trends continue to point to a deficit starting in 2015.

"How much more expensive is this going to be?" asked Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, at a meeting of a legislative panel that oversees MNsure, Minnesota's exchange. "I think people want to know how expensive it's going to be and how it's going to be paid for."

MNsure executives, while acknowledging the possibility of budget difficulties ahead, have not yet answered those questions.

As of this week, about 92,000 Minnesotans have obtained insurance coverage through MNsure. But more than two-thirds of that enrollment has been in taxpayer-subsidized plans; the rest, about 29,500, have been in private insurance — considerably less than what had been projected by this time, and well below the 70,000 predicted to be signed up in private plans by the end of March.

That prediction is important because the money to fund MNsure starting in 2015 is supposed to come from a premium tax on private plans sold on the exchange. If current enrollment trends continue, the agency would have to find some funding source for potentially millions more to cover its operating costs.

MNsure got about $155 million in grants from the federal government to build its website and cover costs through 2014. Agency leaders stressed to lawmakers that they are working on budget questions.

"We'll first be looking within our existing grant budget for 2014 and taking some hard looks at areas," MNsure acting CEO Scott Leitz said. "Beyond that, we'll have to make some determinations if there are additional opportunities perhaps at the federal level for additional dollars."

Lawmakers expressed concern that MNsure official would be asking for more money in the coming months. MNsure officials, who previously had said they would not do that, were less definite at Wednesday's hearing. The agency is charged with submitting the Legislature a proposed 2015 budget by March 15.

"I keep hearing, 'We're talking about the budget, we're talking about the budget, we're talking about the budget,'" said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake. "At some point somebody is going to have to make a decision."

MNsure officials said they still expect an enrollment spike in March, ahead of the deadline at the end of that month by which all Americans are supposed to have insurance coverage or face tax penalties under the federal health care law. Leitz said well-documented problems with the MNsure website and call center have been steadily getting resolved.

Leitz said wait times at the call center have shrunk to 15 minutes or less in recent days, from a high of as long as two hours in late December. On Wednesday, 50 new call center workers started, and another 50 are scheduled to start Feb. 19. Leitz said that should keep wait times lower even with the expected enrollment bounce as the March 31 deadline nears.

Website problems have been addressed too, Leitz said. He said 98 percent of people who come to the site are now able to successfully complete their transaction without extra help, compared with 70 percent six weeks ago. In November, Leitz said, about 17 percent of users encountered an error message as they progressed through the site; he said that's been reduced to 4 or 5 percent.


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