Updated: 03/31/2014 10:45 PM
Created: 03/31/2014 1:41 PM WDIO.com
By: STEVE KARNOWSKI, Associated Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - The call center for Minnesota's online health insurance marketplace strained Monday under a crush of people trying to beat the midnight Monday deadline for open enrollment, while residents lined up to take advantage of locations offering in-person help.
MNsure said its call center logged about 17,000 calls by 4 p.m. Monday, taxing the phone system and preventing some people from getting through to agents. The average wait time was 20 minutes. The call volume was about four times that seen on Dec. 31, an earlier enrollment deadline for coverage that took effect Jan. 1.
Minnesota is one of 14 states plus Washington, D.C., that chose to run their own exchanges rather than using the federal system.
People who couldn't get through or encountered difficulty signing up online were urged to fill out an enrollment attempt form on MNsure's website so an agent could contact them later to complete the enrollment process. Those who missed the 11:59 p.m. CDT deadline but made a good-faith effort to enroll were being allowed more time and to escape the federal tax penalty.
Shawne Jones, 43, of Maplewood, was among the last-minute shoppers lining up at the Ramsey County Government Center for help from Portico Healthnet, a nonprofit that provides "navigators" to help guide people through the enrollment process.
"Time just got away from me," said Jones, a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, who said his previous insurance company dropped him in January and that he needed help sorting out his options. He said he decided after looking at MNsure's website not to attempt enrolling on his own.
"It was just a little confusing. So I thought it'd be better if I came down, eventually, and I'd be able to get help on the spot," he said.
Jones was among Minnesota residents, speaking several languages, who stopped at Portico's desk for forms to start the process of shopping for competing private insurance plans or enrolling in the public Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare programs for low-income people.
"It's been really busy all day," said Tina Curry, Ramsey County's division director for financial assistance services, who said the navigators told her MNsure's system seemed to be running slower than normal because of the demand.
More than 152,000 people had enrolled for coverage as of Friday. The exchange did not plan to issue updated figures until Tuesday. MNsure Interim Chief Executive Scott Leitz also said he doesn't expect to have a tally until sometime in April on how many of the 400,000 previously uninsured Minnesotans have enrolled. About 60 percent of the state's uninsured were eligible for public programs, he said.
Before MNsure's call center started reaching capacity, Leitz urged people "not to wait to enroll. The longer you wait, the more challenged the system might become."
Speaking to reporters at MNsure headquarters, Leitz said fixes to the system and added capacity since a troubled launch last Oct. 1 made him confident that it could handle the final surge, though he acknowledged temporary slowdowns were likely. The call center would remain staffed through midnight, he said.
Monday was the last day for most people to sign up for private insurance plans before the next open enrollment period this fall. However, the state's human services commissioner, Lucinda Jesson, noted that people eligible for Medical Assistance, the state's version of Medicaid, and MinnesotaCare, a program for the working poor, can enroll throughout the year. People who thought they were ineligible for those programs or couldn't afford the premiums should check again because the rules have changed, she said.
"Every day you wait to enroll is a day you don't have health insurance. It's a day you risk medical bankruptcy with large bills, or you're not getting your kids the preventive care they need," Jesson said.
(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
2 Suspects Arrested, 1 at Large in Hibbing Armed Robbery
Hibbing Police say two men have been charged for armed robbery and a third suspect is still on the loose. According to police, a man was robbed at gunpoint early Sunday morning on the 2400 block of Fourth Avenue East. They say there is no threat to the public.
Authorities Release New Details in Fond Du Lac Reservation Homicide
Authorities said Tuesday that a Medical Examiner's report shows 31-year old Waubunoquay Dawn Randall of Stoney Brook Township died as a result of "multiple" stab wounds, allegedly at the hands of her husband. Authorities said they have now located the other woman they were searching for after she called 911 Tuesday night.
Minnesota Hotline Set Up for Ebola Questions
The state Health Department has set up a hotline to answer Minnesotans' questions about Ebola and precautions against the disease. The line will be staffed during regular business hours, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.
The Touchstone Awards: Men as Peacemakers
Men as Peacemakers are using sports to help children succeed in the Duluth area. They've been honored for their work by the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation.
Superior Firefighters Battle Real Flames for Practice
Superior Firefighters are doing their first live training in a burning house over the next three days. The battalion chief says they've trained other ways, but nothing is as helpful as this. He says the smoke and heat-retaining rooms help to make the exercise more realistic.