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MNsure advocates, opponents debate meaning of first data ‘snapshot’

As of Wednesday, about 12,000 people have created accounts, and about 5,600 people had completed applications for coverage.

“Most of the enrollment is going to come in in December for January,” said MNsure Executive Director April Todd-Malmlov.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

Although most observers agree it’s too early to rate how Minnesota’s health insurance exchange is performing, advocates and opponents are staking out their views of the first numbers anyway.

MNsure, now just two weeks old, released its first MNsure Metrics report [PDF] on Wednesday, announcing that nearly 3,800 people are “significantly down the enrollment process to get coverage.”

But there’s disagreement over whether that number — and more importantly, future enrollment — will be adequate to ensure the exchange has enough people to provide cheap insurance and keep its own budget afloat.

So far, the exchange’s governing board is taking a wait-and-see approach on many issues.

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At its Wednesday meeting, for example, the board deferred setting the percentage that the exchange would withhold from premiums. Chairman Brian Beutner joked that a future meeting in December would take 17 hours if the members kept putting issues off.

Board members said there simply isn’t enough information to make some decisions yet.

“We have a lot of uncertainty about how much revenue we’ll have,” Board Member Phil Norgaard said. “We know it’s going to be lower than we thought it might be because of the cost of premiums,” which on average were lower than expected.

Exchange staff had previously been releasing information on the number of website visits, user accounts created and calls to the exchange phone center but couldn’t provide details on how many people had actually secured insurance coverage.

As of Wednesday, they said about 12,000 people have created accounts, and about 5,600 people had completed applications for coverage. Of the roughly 3,800 people in the process of enrolling, only 406 were getting private health coverage.

The remaining 3,400 people were enrolling in public health programs available before the exchange’s launch.

 The health insurance marketplace, which hopes to attract 135,000 people during the 2014 open-enrollment period, expects interest to spike toward the end of the year – before the insurance mandate penalty kicks in.

“Most of the enrollment is going to come in in December for January,” MNsure Executive Director April Todd-Malmlov told reporters after the meeting. “In the first year, we likely will be on the low end.”

MNsure Board Chairman Beutner said after Wednesday’s meeting that the enrollment numbers and user data lack context at this point.

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“It’s early indications — and that’s really all it is —and I’m pleased that you have that many [people] who were that active that early,” Beutner said of the first enrollment numbers. “Is there any benchmarking? No. Because you’re creating something new.”

Beutner did praise the early numbers as a positive indicator. Todd-Malmlov also told reporters that the first two weeks of sign-ups were outperforming the “low” enrollment goals that MNsure is predicting.

Republicans, who had been bashing the exchange before its launch, agreed that the information available now is sketchy — and then criticized the program for it.

“I don’t think  [Wednesday’s numbers are] a real indication of where it’s at,” GOP Sen. Michelle Benson said during an interview, “which is a problem in and of itself.”

“If everybody waits … to do their enrollment and there are any capacity glitches or they have trouble transferring information, now all of a sudden we really end up pushing up against that Dec. 15 deadline in order to be able to get insurance without a penalty,” added Benson, a health reform expert in the Legislature.

She and other Republicans also have been criticizing what they call a delay in getting people’s enrollment information to the health insurers. Todd-Malmlov argued that the state wasn’t delaying the transfer but was checking its connections to the carriers.

At the meeting, MNsure also announced about $4 million in outreach grants to 29 organizations, which are expected to reach out to more than 300,000 Minnesotans. The exchange, which took fire for the process it used to select the initial grants, missed multiple internal deadlines before announcing the awards.

Even with the uncertainty and messaging from both sides, Beutner said it is important to focus on the data, not on the partisans praising or criticizing the exchange.

When asked about Republican criticisms, Todd-Malmlov said: “People will get the information when they need to get it.”