By Brian Rosemeyer
Sun Sailor Newspapers
The conversation on health care in America has been raging. Per the controversial Affordable Care Act, health insurance marketplaces or exchanges have been established and launched Oct. 1.
Minnesota’s exchange, MNsure, has been live for more than a week and has provided a wealth of information from numerous sources.
Plymouth-based Small Business Minnesota has identified health care as the leading concern for its more than 300 members statewide and offered some “rhetoric-free” information at a MNsure and Your Small Business Forum Sept. 30 at Ridgedale Center in Minnetonka.
Assistant to the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health Manny Munson-Regala delivered an in-depth look at MNsure to a group of metro-area small business owners at the forum.
What is MNsure?
MNsure is an online health insurance exchange where individuals and small employers can shop for, compare and enroll in health insurance. Open enrollment began through MNsure Oct. 1, and coverage will take effect Jan. 1, 2014.
Munson-Regala said the resource offers a number of benefits for smaller entities working their way through the insurance market.
“The current purchasing environment, for a lot of people, tends to be very fractured,” he said. “If you’re looking for individual coverage, you either have a broker or you go to each company’s website and explore products that way.”
With all the information in one location, Munson-Regala said shoppers can now compare products “apples-to-apples.”
Prices of insurance products on MNsure are required to match the cost off the state-run marketplace. Some tax credits are also available through MNsure for small businesses and individuals purchasing on the exchange.
Munson-Regala speculated that the marketplace could force prices of some insurance products down, because providers will be heavily “shopped” on MNsure and competition would inevitably increase.
“In theory, exchanges can aggregate your buying power,” he said. “Small employers don’t have the same power in negotiating price as a large business. In theory, an exchange can increase that power.”
Small Business Implications
Munson-Regala stressed at the forum that small businesses are not required to provide insurance for employees under the ACA. Businesses with less than 50 full time employees are exempt from the employer mandate.
He continued to note that roughly 90 percent of large employers already meet the mandate and stated that MNsure doesn’t change anything for about 80 percent of the population.
“It’s going to be an interesting political conversation, but I don’t know if it’s going to have material impact on where we get our coverage,” Munson-Regala said. “Most large companies make the decision [to offer coverage] for the same reasons they made the decision before.”
An attractive option for a number of small businesses that wish to provide coverage is a defined contribution plan, as opposed to group coverage. Through defined contribution, a monthly healthcare allowance is paid to eligible employees, who can take the allowance to the exchange and select their personal plan.
Munson-Regala said defined contribution solves a few health care problems for small businesses: cost becomes more predictable when the allowance is fixed, more choices can be offered to employees and the method can alleviate the complexity of providing coverage.
“So you can do your day job; baking or running a floral shop instead of being full-time benefits management,” he said.
Employers who offer multiple insurance products for their employees can now pay through the MNsure exchange, as opposed to paying numerous carriers individually – simplifying the billing process.
Purchasing a Product
Enrollment for coverage beginning Jan. 1, 2014 must be complete by Dec. 15 through MNsure.
The exchange currently offers products through five major carriers: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, HealthPartners, Medica, PreferredOne Insurance Company and UCare Minnesota. The list of carriers is subject to change and MNsure builds out.
Brokers assisting in a product’s purchase must be certified through MNsure to receive a commission for the sale. Any broker can apply for MNsure certification.
Of Minnesota’s roughly 80,000 health insurance brokers, MNsure’s goal is to license 1,800 for the exchange. About 200 were certified when the site went live, but the number is expected to grow quickly.
A tax credit is available through the exchange for businesses of less than 25 FTES with employee salary average less than $50,000. A calculator is available on mnsure.org to determine whether a small business is eligible for the tax credit.
Although the first week of MNsure’s live website was plagued with glitches, slowdowns and confusion, the exchange has set a goal to cover 1.3 million Minnesotans with health insurance.
Munson-Regala said he believes states that established their own exchanges instead of adopting the federally run marketplace – such as Minnesota – have a number of advantages.
“We’re going to be able to do things through this exchange that the federal one can’t,” he said.
George Effrem, owner of Wood Carvers Store and School in St. Louis Park, attended the forum to learn about MNsure as an option for his coverage.
Effrem is currently the sole employee of his business, which offers books, tools, supplies and instruction on woodworking.
He said health insurance can be a difficult problem when you represent yourself on the insurance market. He was optimistic that MNsure had the potential to facilitate the process and enhance his options.
“I think it’ll make it easier for me to shop and decide,” Effrem said. “Otherwise, I guess I’ll stick with what I know.”
He recently broke his arm and, while the bones are mending, Effrem is working to catch up after the cost of medical attention he required without insurance coverage.
“This happened,” he said, pointing to his arm. “And it was all on me. With MNsure, there could be some tax credits and ways of lowering the price of health insurance for me. So I think it could be good.”
Contact Brian Rosemeyer at [email protected]