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Mahube-Otwa helps people hit MNsure deadline

Though the deadline is nearing for MNsure to go into effect, residents still struggle to sign up for health insurance.

"The website is no better for us than residents," Karen Lenius said. "It's not that we don't want to help, it's just that when the system is down, it's down."

Lenius and about 25 others within Mahube-Otwa Community have been trained to be navigators for MNsure, Minnesota's healthcare exchange program.

"It's part of our job. We help people apply for health insurance," she said of the programs they offered before MNsure even existed.

Mahube-Otwa assists those within their Housing Assistance, Energy Assistance and Head Start programs with insurance needs as well.

Lenius said they have been taking calls daily regarding the program, and while they are happy to help, she said they have no magic power to make the process seamless either. They have to go through the same steps as anyone registering, and as navigators, they have no little shortcuts.

Since sign-up started a couple months ago, Mahube-Otwa has signed up about 25 people throughout the five counties they serve.

"That's 25 that didn't have coverage before," Lenius said.

While Mahube-Otwa can help people see if they qualify for medical assistance or MinnesotaCare, if they don't and will have to purchase their own insurance, Mahube-Otwa refers them to insurance agents in the county. Executive Director Leah Pigatti said they are not in the insurance agent business and have no interest in taking business away from local agents.

"We get people connected to (qualified insurance agents). We're doing advertising for the insurance agents," Pigatti said.

As of last month, local agents and navigators included Schiller Insurance, Thrivent, Wimmer Insurance Services, Farm Bureau Financial Services, Markuson-Baer Insurance, Farmers Union Insurance Agency and New York Life Insurance, all of Detroit Lakes, as well as Lake Park Insurance Agency, Somdahl of Audubon and Noah Insurance Service of Callaway. Mahube-Otwa serves Mahnomen, Hubbard, Becker, Otter Tail and Wadena counties.

Under the new MNsure plan, which is Minnesota's response to ObamaCare, all Minnesota residents must be registered for health care by March 31 of 2014 or they face a penalty. And while that penalty is minimal the first year ($95 per adult), it more than triples the following year ($325 per adult) if someone still does not have insurance. By 2016, that penalty continues to rise to $695 per adult.

The deadline for Jan. 1 coverage is Dec. 31. After that, people must be registered by the 15th of the month to start coverage the following month. (Example: Be signed up by Jan. 15 to start coverage Feb. 1.)

While it may be a struggle to even get onto the MNsure site at times, Pigatti said the first year of Medicare D was a big struggle as well, and it went "smooth as silk" after the first year or two. There may be growing pains, but it works out in the end.

"We're learning new things, but we have no magical system," Lenius said.

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