MNsure races to ready its technology systems as Nov. 15 open enrollment date approaches

Officials racing to ready Minnesota's health insurance exchange for open enrollment one month from now said Wednesday it's a high-risk project because of tight timelines but they expect consumers will have a better experience than last year.

Managers from the state's information technology agency MN.IT told MNsure's board Wednesday that extensive testing is underway to make sure the website and related systems are as ready as possible by Nov. 15, when individuals can start shopping again for private health insurance via the state-run exchange. Dec. 15 is the deadline for signing up for coverage that takes effect Jan. 1. People who do nothing typically will get automatically re-enrolled in their existing or similar plans, but their premiums are likely to be higher.

Jesse Orman, assistant commissioner of projects and initiatives for MN.IT, said the site will be 75 percent faster, and pages will load within one or two seconds compared with six to eight seconds before.

MNsure's inaugural open enrollment period got off to a rocky start last year due to serious computer problems and long waits for help from its call center. Orman cautioned that the system won't function perfectly this year either and officials will be making ongoing improvements.

The board also heard a warning that many consumers are likely to face much higher premiums, partly because this year's cheapest insurer and top seller, PreferredOne, won't offer plans on MNsure. Insurance agents started getting data from PreferredOne on Tuesday showing rates will increase for many people by as much as 60 percent if they keep those policies and buy them off the exchange instead, said Heidi Michaels, president-elect of the Minnesota Association of Health Underwriters.

The many PreferredOne policyholders who qualify for tax credits will lose them unless they switch carriers. While the Department of Commerce said Oct. 1 that increases among four remaining plans will average 4.5 percent, that number has been challenged by the underwriters association and other critics as deceptive math. Premiums for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, for example, are slated to rise by an average of 17 percent.

While rates might be higher overall, MNsure's executive director, Scott Leitz, told the board that more financial assistance will be available for many consumers. He said the best way for people to find out how much they'll have to pay next year is to check out the website during open enrollment, shop the available policies and let the site calculate how much aid they can get.

The board also approved a switch to fiscal years that coincide with the state's fiscal years, which run July 1-June 31, rather than following the calendar year. Board member Tom Forsythe said it will be simpler and provide for more accurate revenue projections. The board then adopted a fiscal 2015 budget retroactive to July 1 that calls for spending $76 million, compared with $121 million for the original calendar year 2014 budget. A proposed fiscal 2016 budget calling for spending nearly $46 million will be up for public comment and a final vote in December. Leitz said the budgets are balanced.

The budgets reflect declining costs as MNsure gets past its startup costs, weans itself off federal money and becomes self-sustaining as required by law.

But Forsythe noted the budgets presume MNsure will get its technology problems under control.

"We have the money to fix it but we don't have the money to fix it multiple times," he said. "We have to fix it with the money we have."