Minnesota's health insurance exchange struggles to sign up small businesses

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MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota's health insurance exchange is having a big problem with attracting small businesses.

MNsure was originally expected to cover 155,000 people in small-group plans by next year. Enrollment was only 1,405 earlier this month, the Star Tribune reported Monday (http://strib.mn/1PIbqF0 ).

Insurance agents who help small companies cover their employees say several factors are at play, including a computer system they say is slow and cumbersome and can't complete the full enrollment process online. Those problems discourage agents from using the exchange to line up coverage for those customers.

"We don't have that kind of time," said Sheryl Frieman, an agent with Array Insurance in Golden Valley who calls herself a supporter of the federal health law. "If I don't use it, no one is going to use it."

MNsure's chief operating officer Katie Burn said the exchange has a plan to grow small business enrollment. She said MNsure has had to focus its resources so far on people who use the exchange for individual coverage or for public programs such as Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare.

"It's not the case that a broker can go in and do the entire enrollment process online for the small employer," she acknowledged. "There are pieces of it that need to be done offline."

A health policy researcher at the University of Chicago, Jon Gabel, said other states are struggling with similar issues.

"They've got to get broker buy-in," Gabel said. "From our surveys, maybe 35 percent or so of small employers are aware of the (exchanges)."

Small-group plans covered 289,590 people in the state last year, according to the Minnesota Council of Health Plans, which means the MNsure share if that market was less than 1 percent.

In the coming year, Burns said, MNsure expects to put more resources into publicizing what's officially called the Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP for short. And she said the definition for eligible small groups next year should increase from 50 or fewer workers to those with 51 to 100 workers — potentially expanding the pool of companies shopping through the exchange.


Information from: Star Tribune, http://www.startribune.com

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