- Associated Press - Monday, February 1, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - MNsure announced Monday it had signed up more than 85,000 consumers into private health care plans in the latest round of open enrollment, eclipsing a critical registration goal by luring a large share of new customers to buy insurance through the exchange.

Chief executive Allison O’Toole credited improvements to MNsure’s website and call center since the exchange’s disastrous launch in 2013 for surpassing the goal of signing up 83,000 plans.

Critics stress the goal has been drastically reduced from the initial projections of hundreds of thousands of policies because MNsure fell short in its first two years, but O’Toole said time has proven those estimates were “flat-out wrong.”

“We are clearly making strong, steady progress,” she said.

MNsure officials said they had enrolled 85,390 private plans at the close of open enrollment Sunday, up more than 20,000 from the same time last year. Those private plans are critical to MNsure, as the exchange’s budget depends on a fee collected from them.

The state exchange capitalized on the allure of tax credits to offset big premium increases in 2016.

A federal report last month showed Minnesota netted the greatest share of first time-shoppers compared to returning customers of any state in the nation; O’Toole said initial data shows 45 percent of its customers were first-timers.

“For months, we have been telling Minnesotans not to leave money on the table. Today’s enrollment numbers show that message was received loud and clear,” she said.

But Republican Sen. Michelle Benson said that’s only proof that MNsure is solving a problem that the Affordable Care Act and the exchange itself helped create: higher health care costs.

“We would expect that if you give people more money, they’re going to come into the exchange,” the Ham Lake lawmakers said. “It is largely due to the fact that there is more money available, not because MNsure is performing better.”

MNsure also said it signed up more than 73,000 residents into the low-income health care program Medical Assistance and another 33,000 into MinnesotaCare, the state’s program for the “working poor” who make too much for Medical Assistance but can’t afford insurance.

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