MNsure debuts to heavy traffic, could appeal to students

The online health care exchange went live despite the shutdown.

Alexa Billadeau

After years of preparation, Minnesota launched its online health care exchange Tuesday afternoon.

MNsure, the state’s insurance marketplace, will allow Minnesotans to create accounts, buy plans and compare premiums. This model is a key component of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, and other marketplaces went live nationwide Tuesday.

MNsure launched a little after 3 p.m. after a delay to connect with the marketplace’s “federal hub,” MNsure Board Chairman Brian Beutner said.

Overall, however, MNsure spokesman John Reich said the launch was “smooth.”

The exchange’s call center received approximately three times as many calls Tuesday as last month’s average, Reich said.

Users mostly asked about the enrollment process and when the exchange would open, he said.

Beutner said he predicted heavy web traffic during the marketplace’s opening hours. He said people would be exploring their options for health care insurance plans and rates.

Beutner said some features of the exchange won’t be functional until next week. For example, Native Americans may not receive their full benefits while registering and buying insurance until details within the system are streamlined.

MNsure will operate until only 10 p.m. daily for the first few weeks, Beutner said, so any issues that arise can be addressed overnight.

Potential benefits to students

Along with more than a dozen other states, Minnesota opted to create its own exchange rather than using the standard federal marketplace.

A study by the Minnesota Department of Commerce  predicted MNsure will offer the lowest rates available in the country.

University of Minnesota health policy and management professor Roger Feldman said the exchange’s low rates might appeal to students who aren’t covered by their parents’ health insurance plans.

Feldman said students can qualify for deals on the exchange and the state offers subsidies to students who are buying the silver plan, which, on average, covers about 70 percent of health care costs.

Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, said he’s excited about what the exchange means for students, who often go without health insurance during their college years.

“We tried to set up a system that provides for high-quality, affordable coverage for people at that stage in their life,” he said.

He said young people will be attracted to the convenience of the exchange and that it’s important to be insured, regardless of age.

But Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, said the costs outweigh the benefits for students since many of them are already healthy.

Those who don’t need coverage shouldn’t spend money on it, he said.