- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 1, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - As thousands of Minnesota residents got their first glimpse at major health insurance premium hikes for next year with the start of open enrollment Tuesday, Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders set their sights on a post-election special session without a clear plan for how to offset the higher costs.

Minnesota officials are scrambling to blunt the 50 percent to 67 percent rate increases in 2017 on the individual market, where residents who aren’t covered by employers or through public programs get coverage. Those hikes are among the biggest nationwide for the plans ushered in by the Affordable Care Act.

But not every shopper anxious about those higher premiums and what plans would be available could easily look, as a state government-wide website outage brought down MNsure’s home page and roughly 70 others for 30 minutes and limited its functionality for hours. Still, the exchange reported record levels of traffic for its first day of open enrollment.

The MNsure Contact Center said it would remain open until 7 p.m. Tuesday due to “historically high call volume on the first day.” Callers on hold at 7 p.m. will have their calls answered, MNsure said.

After a private meeting to discuss the situation Tuesday, Dayton and Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt said teams of lawmakers will start working to finalize a possible relief plan for those who can’t get federal subsidies.

“It’s imperative … that we’ve got something ready to go immediately after the election,” Dayton said.

Just what form that state support would take is still unclear. Dayton has proposed using a state budget surplus to issue rebates that would reduce the premium hikes down to a roughly 16 percent increase. In some cases, federal subsidies can offset the rate hikes entirely. House Republicans have suggested a tax credit and other fixes to address concerns that health insurance may not be available in up to five Minnesota counties.

Daudt was noncommittal on what shape the support may take but said the two sides agree action is needed.

“I think there is a common realization, that folks in the Legislature understand that we’re going to need to help some folks. This is really a crisis for the Minnesotans that are going through it,” Daudt said.

Dayton had hoped to have a plan in place to tackle costs by the start of open enrollment - and before Minnesota voters head to the polls to determine control of the Minnesota House and Senate. Together with the Democratic governor’s remarks that the Affordable Care Act “is no longer affordable” for too many, Democrats across the state have been hammered with attack ads linking them to the rate increases.

Daudt said lawmakers also need to ensure that all residents are able to pick a plan for next year. Most Minnesota insurers selling on the state’s health insurance exchange or directly to consumers have instituted caps on how many plans they’ll cover, leaving the prospect that coverage will sell out in five counties.

Dayton and Minnesota Department of Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said they’re working with insurance companies to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Meanwhile, more than 15,000 shoppers had started looking for coverage next year on MNsure by midday, exchange chief executive Allison O’Toole said - but the process wasn’t going smoothly for all.

The website went down for a half-hour in the morning, an outage that MNsure officials said was part of statewide website issues. The state’s information technology department said it was investigating what caused the downtime but Scott Peterson, MNsure’s chief business technology officer, said it didn’t appear to be linked to the traffic surge on the exchange.

The exchange was also wracked in the morning by thousands of what appeared to be automated calls that jammed its phone lines, exacerbating call wait times for confused customers. Dayton called it a deplorable disruption that was quickly managed by the state. O’Toole said MNsure was considering bringing in more third-party call center staff.

“We are backed up right now because of some outside factors,” O’Toole said. “People still have time. They still have options.”


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