- Associated Press - Friday, February 13, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - The smell of fresh cilantro, baked goods and noodle soup wafts over a group of nearly a dozen people, all waiting their turn for help signing up for health insurance.

This outpost - laptops stationed on fold-up tables, tucked away inside the noisy Hmong Village market in St. Paul - and others like it scattered across Minnesota are critical to the state health exchange’s efforts to get residents signed up for coverage.

With the end of year two’s open enrollment coming Sunday, it’s crunch time for MNsure. Having already picked the “low hanging fruit” of uninsured Minnesota residents in its first year, the exchange is putting in extra effort to root out the enrollments it needs to stay on a sound financial track.

MNsure hosted more than 250 sign-up events in the last week of enrollment, including the Hmong American Partnership registration blitz in St. Paul Friday. The exchange has targeted a younger crowd with advertisements through online radio services. And it leaned on insurance agents and brokers, forking over advertising dollars in exchange for a promise that they would sign up their clients through MNsure.

“We have to work that much harder to reach people who didn’t come in during year one. Those people are really hard to find,” MNsure spokesman Joe Campbell said.

The exchange is banking on a payoff from the outreach efforts and a surge of procrastinators signing up just before the midnight deadline on Feb. 15, after which uninsured Americans will face the penalties in President Barack Obama’s health care law.

The exchange announced Friday that it was still more than 17,000 shy of its goal of getting 67,000 people signed up in private plans. Commercial signups are critical to MNsure’s budget because a fee on those plans funds its operations.

CEO Scott Leitz said MNsure has tapped “all the resources in the community we possibly could” to continue cutting down the state’s uninsured rate. Exchange officials note that more than 40 percent of its signups last year came in the last month of open enrollment.

In St. Paul, Mai Lo from the Hmong American Partnership said the group has seen a huge increase in interest at its enrollment events as the Sunday deadline approaches.

The threat of a fine prompted the normally medicine-wary Michael Vang to sign up.

“It’s just something I want to avoid,” the 23-year-old St. Paul resident said.

MNsure’s goal for commercial coverage enrollments - which was scaled back from 100,000 - was dealt a major setback by the exit of the exchange’s largest provider.

MNsure has tried to win back PreferredOne subscribers with a barrage of mailers, phone calls and emails promoting the possibility of subsidies available only through the exchange. As of late January, less than a third of customers who picked a PreferredOne policy returned to the exchange to choose a new plan, according to MNsure.

MNsure has also tried to leverage the expertise of insurance brokers. The exchange gave a total of $40,000 to six agencies, which signed up customers using the state’s insurance portal. Leitz said Friday that effort has paid off: Those agencies signed up more than 14 times as many Minnesota residents in commercial plans as last year.

Asked whether MNsure would meet its goals or would again need to adjust its budget to account for less money coming in, Campbell said: “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

“Whatever the … enrollment turns out next week,” board chair Brian Beutner said, “the fact of the matter is in the 17 months since MNsure opened its doors, hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans have health coverage that didn’t, thanks to MNsure.”

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