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Editorial: Is open enrollment less scary?

 That stressful time of year is here again. No, not the elections. Let’s take a break from that for a moment. This is about open enrollment, that annual period when the masses of wage slaves enroll or re-enroll for health insurance, weighing plans and options, considering costs and other factors — and not really understanding much of any of it before signing up for one more year.  The tens of thousands of Minnesotans who get their insurance not through an employer but through MNsure, our public exchange under the federal Affordable Care Act, may be feeling especially stressed this fall. Rates are rising. There’s the pressure to make a good decision. And the woes of MNsure, going into just its third year, remain fresh: the computer crashes, the long waits on hold for help, the leadership lapses and more.  

“We have not had a perfect past. That has been widely reported, and we face that every time I have a conversation,” MNsure Interim CEO Allison O’Toole said in an interview this month with members of the Duluth News Tribune editorial board. “You can’t run from your history. It is what it is.”  But you can learn from past mistakes to make the future better. Open enrollment started Nov. 1 and runs through the end of January.  “It’s night and day,” O’Toole said. There are no longer computer system stability issues. Hourlong waits on hold when calling in for help are now under two minutes. And more Minnesotans than ever are getting covered.  “We are really working night and day to make sure consumers get the help they need,” she said. “We’re really a consumer-protection organization. … Our mission is to provide market transparency. We’re one of the only places where you can do apples-to-apples comparisons of the hundred plans that are available.”  

That’s especially critical this year with rates on the rise and anecdotal evidence of more employers, especially smaller employers, dropping health insurance and leaving their workers to fend for themselves on the public exchange.  With tax credits, discounts and other savings available, going to doesn’t have to be intimidating, O’Toole said.  Last year, health care consumers in Minnesota saved $31 million via tax credits. Free help is available again this year via “navigators” to point consumers toward savings and through the sign-up or re-enrollment processes.  Despite all of MNsure’s woes, Minnesota is doing better than most states in making sure its residents have coverage, one of the main goals of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Minnesota is one of only five states with 95 percent or more of residents covered.  Of course, that means about 275,000 Minnesotans still are without coverage. So more effort clearly can be made.

 “Our goal is always to get to perfection, but you know that is not totally realistic,” O’Toole said. “I think the lowest rate of uninsurance is about 3 percent in Massachusetts.

They’ve been at this for about a decade longer than we have. But I still sure would like to drive our number closer to 3.”  Reaching a goal like that can’t be promised. Not yet. But other promises — especially free sign-up help and a smoother, hassle-free enrollment period this year as compared to the past two years — O’Toole and MNsure can be held to. It’s stressful enough this time of year as it is.