ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The staff at Portico Healthnet was all set to start signing people up for coverage through Minnesota's new health insurance exchange on Tuesday. Unfortunately, the exchange wasn't ready for them.
After a delay of several hours so that officials could make sure the state's new online health insurance marketplace, MNsure, was secure and connected to the federal system, it opened for business.
Although similar exchanges opened in state's throughout the country Tuesday morning, many experienced problems due to intense demand or technical glitches that prevented users from shopping for health plans. That was the case in the 36 mostly Republican-led states that deferred to the federal government to set up and run their exchanges. But several state-run sites, such as Minnesota's, also had problems.
Mitch Grussing, a 27-year-old self-employed music teacher from St. Paul, said he was anxious for the new exchange to open so that he can look for a better plan than his current one, which charges high premiums and deductibles.
"I'm really interested in getting coverage through MNsure, but if the rollout is delayed that doesn't really bother me because coverage doesn't start until January. But I am eager to get on there and see what coverage they have available," Grussing said.
Although Minnesota's exchange eventually opened Tuesday, consumers who needed help navigating the new system would have to wait at least one more day to talk to one of the state's certified advisers, or "navigators." MNsure officials said Monday that it wouldn't be able to post its official list of certified navigators until Wednesday, in all likelihood.
At Portico, which has been working since 1995 to help low-income people get publicly funded health care through programs like Medicaid and MinnesotaCare, workers were itching for the exchange to launch.
"Portico's been focused on this day for well over a year," said Robert Larson, the group's vice president of development and communications, explaining how the group has spent many months raising money to build, train and equip its staff. "We're quite prepared to take this on. ... We're pretty excited about it because we think we can have a real impact on people's health."
Fifteen Portico employees went through the certification process to navigators, and once given the go-ahead by the state, some will fan out to Twin Cities community centers, food shelves and other area locations to help people find the right health plan for them.
"This is an opportunity that we've never seen the likes of before," said Deb Holmgren, the nonprofit's president.
Community outreach is a critical component of the federal health care law's success, as up to 300,000 uninsured Minnesotans are expected to buy insurance through MNsure. Portico will continue to enroll eligible people in Medicaid and MinnesotaCare, and will also help those who have insurance find better deals through the exchange.
MNsure plans to deploy about 5,000 navigators statewide, but like its counterparts in many states, it is behind in certifying navigators.
Minnesotans can shop for insurance plans through MNsure, open accounts, determine if they're eligible for financial assistance and sign up for coverage that will take effect Jan. 1. While the Affordable Care Act mandates that individuals must have health insurance, there will be no penalties for people who sign up during the inaugural open enrollment period, which runs through March 31.
Sen. Michelle Benson, a Ham Lake Republican who has been one of the leading critics of Minnesota's decision to set up its own exchange, said Tuesday that MNsure "built up a tremendous amount of performance pressure" by insisting all along that it would be ready the morning of Oct. 1, and that the launch delay made sense.
"I am really grateful that they are making it assured that they have security, that they have the proper connections with the federal government," Benson said.
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