In Year 3, MNsure ironing out technical issues: Exchange site is working better, and wait times are down. Biggest complaint? Price of plans.
ST. PAUL -- The MNsure health exchange has gotten a lot better this year, but it still has a bad case of the Mondays. The first day of the week is the busiest day for MNsure's call center, which also means it's the day when callers are likeliest ...
ST. PAUL -- The MNsure health exchange has gotten a lot better this year, but it still has a bad case of the Mondays.
The first day of the week is the busiest day for MNsure’s call center, which also means it’s the day when callers are likeliest to wait.
“Ninety-five percent of our calls are answered in less than five minutes, which is good,” said MNsure CEO Allison O’Toole. But on recent Mondays, that rate has plummeted as low as 59 percent, and the rates of callers forced to wait 10 minutes or more for an answer has gone up by 300 percent or more.
Now in its third annual open enrollment, the state-run health insurance exchange has managed to keep the technical glitches and hours-long wait times to a minimum - though victims of both exist. Even some of MNsure’s many critics acknowledge the exchange’s improvements.
The embattled MNsure is hoping these improvements will bring a surge of new customers and new money - and fend off talk about abolishing it.
Experts cite improvements
Richard Lett, CEO of the Woodbury-based insurance broker LeClair Group, said his staff has had a much-improved experience over past years.
“The MNsure staff are just leagues and leagues more experienced and better this year,” Lett said. “The systems are more stable. It’s all worked so much better. Year Three is actually working really well.”
Key lawmakers also said they’ve heard fewer complaints from the public about the technical side of MNsure than past years.
“I am led to believe there have been one or two relatively manageable issues that cropped up,” said state Sen. Tony Lourey, a Kerrick DFLer who sponsored the bill creating MNsure.
State Rep. Matt Dean, a MNsure critic who chairs the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, said he’s heard about improvements with MNsure private insurance sign-ups - but persistent problems for enrollees in public plans, which are administered by counties using MNsure software.
“The MNsure wait times are significantly reduced for most people who are trying to call in, but for people who are trying to get help from the counties, I continue to get feedback they’re still having difficulty,” said Dean, R-Dellwood.
As part of the open enrollment, MNsure extended the deadline to purchase plans that will provide Jan. 1 coverage. Originally Dec. 15, that deadline is now Dec. 28.
MNsure’s performance gains are small solace to customers such as Kate Stanley, a freelance writer in Minneapolis.
“I called in a number of days in a row starting last Friday (Dec. 11),” said Stanley, now in her third year with a MNsure health plan. “The waits have never been shorter than a half hour. I swear that I spent a good 90 minutes on hold on Tuesday.”
She acknowledges she had a tricky issue to resolve, but said she felt needlessly stymied.
MNsure statistics say her experience is unusual. On Tuesday, for example, only 6 percent of customers took longer than 10 minutes to have their call answered - though 20 percent had to wait that long on Monday.
Stories like Stanley’s are abundant on social media, where frustrated would-be customers have vented at MNsure about problems with the website or with the phone support line.
O’Toole acknowledged the issues but argued they are relatively rare.
“This is a complicated transaction for folks,” she said. “For the last two years, it’s been smooth for consumers, or relatively smooth. There are pockets of people who need extra help or get into issues, but the vast majority, even last year, were enrolling with relative ease.”
Technical issues also continue to crop up. Some customers faced a hair-pulling scenario this month when they clicked the button to save their work and exit - and found that mnsure.org didn’t actually save anything.
This bug, which forced some people to start over and hope for better results, is supposed to be fixed this weekend. The fix is scheduled to shut down the mnsure.org website from Saturday evening through Monday morning.
Mnsure.org also has more mundane complaints.
“I must say the interface is not user-friendly,” Stanley said. “It simply is not.”
Behind the scenes, health insurance companies are dealing with improved but persistent technical problems, too. When a customer picks a plan on MNsure, the exchange is supposed to automatically send that customer’s info on to their new health insurer. But that automatic transfer isn’t working properly, forcing insurers to check their files manually against a MNsure spreadsheet for any errors.
“As far as how the enrollment information is getting from MNsure to the plans, it is in some ways going better than last year,” said Eileen Smith, communications director for the Minnesota Council of Health Plans. “It’s more electronic. But in other ways, there’s still a lot of work to do and there’s missing and incorrect information.”
Biggest complain: Price
The biggest complaint about shopping for insurance on MNsure this year is something the exchange doesn’t control: the price of the plans on offer.
Insurers raised premiums for individual market health insurance by as much as 50 percent in some cases - even after the state Department of Commerce negotiated rate increases down.
“If you talk to legislators right now, that is the number one email they get right now, that the (premium) rate on individual policies is going up,” Dean said. Even with subsidies, Dean said, the high premiums are “basically pricing the middle class out of health care.”
The premium hikes are a big hit to customers’ wallets, though federal tax subsidies have become more generous, too.
Those subsidies are only available on MNsure, which could drive customers to the exchange in search of a better deal.
So far this year, 70 percent of MNsure customers qualify for subsidies, up from 55 percent last year.
Lett said most of the people his company helps buy insurance have been switching to lower-cost MNsure plans.
Future in doubt
As MNsure enrolls customers for its third year, state lawmakers are meeting to decide the exchange’s fate. A task force proposed by Gov. Mark Dayton and enacted by lawmakers is considering all options for the future of health care in Minnesota. Among the choices it could recommend: reinforcing MNsure, reforming it or abolishing it altogether in favor of an exchange run by the federal government.
The task force’s recommendations will likely be an issue in the 2016 legislative session, and possibly in the general election beyond that as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor and Republican parties battle for control of the Legislature.
But after spending hours on hold with MNsure over the past week, Stanley has a smaller reform in mind.
“If I could ask one thing of the MNsure telephone system, it would be to change up their hold music,” Stanley said. “It’s the same damn song over and over and over!”
MNsure’s Monday trouble
It is harder to get through to MNsure on Mondays when calls are less likely to be answered within 5 minutes. Mondays are also busier.
Day, date Calls less than 5 mins (percentage)
Monday, Dec. 7 5,382 66%
Tuesday, Dec. 8 4,859 84%
Wednesday, Dec. 9 5,037 77%
Thursday, Dec. 10 4,560 78%
Friday, Dec. 11 No data provided
Monday, Dec. 14 7,342 59%
Tuesday, Dec. 15 6,682 87%
Wednesday, Dec. 16 3,999 93%
Thursday, Dec. 17 3,411 92%