MNsure officials say health insurance exchange off to smooth start as open enrollment begins

Officials with Minnesota's health insurance exchange said the system seemed to be off to a smooth start Saturday on the first day of open enrollment for coverage that starts in 2015.

The MNsure website went live as scheduled at 8 a.m., which allowed consumers to start comparison shopping for insurance policies from five carriers or to renew the coverage they bought last year during the inaugural open enrollment season.

"We already have reports of people successfully enrolling," MNsure spokesman Joe Campbell said a couple of hours after the site went live.

There were no immediate reports of major issues with the system, and around 1,000 people were shopping on the system around 10 a.m., Campbell said. About a dozen individuals or families had enrolled as of around 8:45 a.m., he said.

Callers to MNsure's help line had to wait less than a minute to speak to someone, he said.

MNsure got off to a difficult start when it first launched in October 2013 due to serious technical problems with the website and long waits from an overwhelmed and short-staffed call center.

A new leadership team spent several months and millions of dollars overhauling and extensively testing the system to get it ready for this fall. More than 300 call center workers were hired, and more than 1,000 trained "assisters" were available statewide to provide free in-person help to anyone needing guidance in signing up for the first time or renewing.

More than 371,000 Minnesotans signed up for private insurance or public programs during MNsure's first 12 months. While the vast majority enrolled in the public Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare programs for lower-income people, nearly 56,000 signed up for individual private plans.

Consumers face tight deadlines for locking in the coverage that's now required of almost everyone under the federal Affordable Care Act. While open enrollment runs through Feb. 15, people have only until Dec. 15 to enroll in policies that takes effect Jan. 1. People who enrolled in the public programs, however, don't need to do anything until they hear from the state in the coming weeks.

MNsure's new marketing campaign starts in earnest on Sunday. The main theme is: "95 percent of Minnesotans now have health insurance. 100 percent need it."