ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A late scramble to finalize health coverage before the new year crammed the call center Tuesday at Minnesota's insurance marketplace, which is still working to repair problems with its centerpiece online portal.
People who wanted to guarantee they'll be covered from Wednesday forward had to complete enrollment by Tuesday. The call center was the fallback for shoppers vexed by the troubled MNsure website, a state cousin of the federal health exchange created under President Barack Obama's signature law.
An Associated Press reporter testing wait times Tuesday morning was on hold for two hours and 15 minutes before reaching a live operator. MNsure has been trying to get people to call instead during weekend or evening hours when volume is lower.
Scott Leitz, MNsure's interim chief executive officer, said insurance shoppers are justifiably frustrated by hiccups in the system as they attempt to lock in coverage.
"It's not a perfect system yet, and some people do encounter some challenges," Leitz said Tuesday on a Minnesota Public Radio call-in program.
More than 53,000 people had successfully enrolled in a health plan through the Minnesota marketplace as of Friday. About two-thirds enrolled in a publicly subsidized program. MNsure officials said there had been 72,000 applications in some phase of the process that account for 125,000 people on individual and family plans. Updated figures that factored in the last-minute enrollment crush weren't released.
Leitz said customers who have "done their level best" to secure a health plan could expect to have coverage in the new year even if it takes time to sort everything out. Some applications were being done on paper and manually entered into the system.
Leitz said once the pre-Jan. 1 crush passes, officials will undertake an end-to-end review of the Internet-based system as they seek to fix bugs ahead of the critically important March 31 deadline. That's the latest someone without health insurance can choose a plan without facing federal penalties. After that date, only a qualifying life event — such as a job change or birth of a child — will trigger a new enrollment phase for 2014.
People who missed Tuesday's deadline but enroll by the middle of January will have insurance that starts in February. While people could buy their coverage directly through insurers — and some were — only those shopping through MNsure could obtain tax credits if their income level made them eligible.
People were given until Jan. 10 to pay their first month's premium and still have valid coverage from the first of the month.
Geoff Bartsh, vice president of public policy and government relations at insurer Medica, said health plan operators had been bracing for a late flurry.
"It's human nature to wait until the end, for a lot of people," Bartsh said.
New subscribers who got in just under the wire could experience delays in being recognized by health insurers' computer systems. Bartsh said Medica providers who see newly enrolled patients would make accommodations, but it could be more complex for pharmacies that require up-front payments.
Minnesota had a low level of uninsured people before the law. But shoppers on MNsure also included people looking for a better deal or those whose existing plan didn't meet minimum coverage requirements. The agency wasn't collecting data on who had insurance previously so it's impossible to say how many were obtaining coverage for the first time.
Insurers set their premiums on the notion that younger people who have gone without coverage would get a plan to avoid penalties and to eliminate potential exposure from an unexpected medical event. Early trend lines showed those signing up in Minnesota skewed older, but Bartsh said it's too soon to say if that pattern would hold.
"A lot of the young, healthy invincibles will probably wait until we get to the end of the enrollment period in March before they come in and get their insurance," he said.
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