By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
VICTORIA, Minn. — Barb Stonebraker was born in Hennepin County and has a birth certificate and valid passport to prove it.
Stonebraker is, undoubtedly, a U.S. citizen.
For whatever reason, Minnesota’s MNsure insurance exchange just doesn’t believe her.
“I feel like I’m being stonewalled, and what actually is happening?” asked Stonebraker, who is 61. “I’m not OK with calling and wasting hours and hours of my time only to have people ‘yes’ me.”
Stonebraker, of Victoria, has repeatedly logged on to the MNsure insurance online marketplace. She gets as far as the “Enter and Submit Payment” page before this alert: “The system has detected that your session has been idle for a long period of time. For security reasons, the system has logged you off. Please return to your original payment site and login again. Thank you.”
But she keeps trying. Has for six weeks or so.
But bugs in the system still prevent her from validating her citizenship, thus halting her application for coverage.
She had no idea what was stalling her application until, after repeated emails, MNsure Executive Director April Todd-Malmlov called her. When it first went online, the system produced duplicate copies of her application, which created the confusion.
“She said I had four pending applications and that there was a problem with my citizenship, validating my citizenship,” said Stonebraker, who runs an aviation services business with her husband.
“She said don’t worry about anything, you will have your insurance by Jan. 1 and something about if I had a problem where my citizenship wouldn’t be validated, I would have, I think she said, 95 days to send in my passport.”
Stonebraker’s ordeal provides insight into the quirks of Minnesota’s state exchange, including issues associated with a tie-in to the federal data hub that clears applicants’ eligibility and identity. Other state exchanges report similar snafus with the federal component.
“MNsure does rely upon the federal hub for identity verification. If the federal hub is down, we cannot process identity verification,” said Jenni Bowring-McDonough, media relations coordinator for MNsure. “We have added the capability for our workers to restart that process for consumers who have applications pended for re-verification purposes.”
Stonebraker now gets coverage from the Minnesota Comprehensive Health Association — which insures the hard-to-insure — but that runs out Jan. 1. So far she has burned up an estimated 80 hours on the phone and online trying to apply for a plan that would reduce her $640 monthly premium by almost half.
“In the very beginning, it would take you right to the federal government website before that was corrected,” said Stonebraker while clicking through the MNsure website. “Then there’s the problem of duplicating applications without you knowing it, then the electronic signature didn’t match, then there was no payment option and you’d get kicked out.”
It’s not clear how many other Minnesotans are facing similar challenges with MNsure, though the exchange has acknowledged a series of technical glitches and fixes designed to make it more user-friendly.
“If there is something that cannot be verified in identity verification process, the process may need to be attempted again,” said Bowring-McDonough. “After we launched on Oct. 1, we did experience issues with identity verification, and those issues were addressed.”
Some 4,300 Minnesotans have so far chosen medical plans through MNsure, including 1,774 who have signed up for private health insurance plans, according to federal government statistics released this week.
At a recent news conference, MNsure officials highlighted the success stories of two women who successfully navigated the system. “Our mission is to ensure all Minnesotans have the security of health insurance, and when we hear from real people that they will have the quality, affordable coverage that they need, it makes our work even more rewarding. The MNsure staff work long hours to make the marketplace better every day,” Todd-Malmlov said.
A member of the MNsure Legislative Oversight Committee, however, plans to highlight Stonebraker’s frustrating case during the committee’s next meeting in December.
“Health reform was supposed to make it easier for people to get health insurance, and as we can see it has made it harder,” said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake. “It has caused Minnesotans to worry unnecessarily, and it hasn’t improved their insurance coverage.”
For her part, Stonebraker and her husband, Ernie, who’s on Medicare, followed up the conversation with MNsure’s top official with another polite yet firm email: “As a responsible citizen of the United States of America, I have never been without health insurance. The exchange has forced my old insurance to be cancelled and I need you to clear the obstacles caused by this flawed system.”
Watch video of Stonebraker here:
Contact Tom Steward at firstname.lastname@example.org.