Website frustrations may have ‘scared off’ some Black enrollees
By Charles Hallman
Open enrollment for MNsure, the state’s health insurance marketplace, closes March 31. Stairstep Foundation President Alfred Babington-Johnson said, “It’s important for MNsure to be able to reach into communities with a sense of uniqueness of those communities, and not some kind of generic, cookie-cutter application [process].
“The case we made was [that] we have a different story to tell and we need to tell that story,” said Babington-Johnson. “The end result is that African Americans need health care.”
Minnesota State Senator Jeff Hayden told the MSR that $750,000 was allocated by MNsure, the state’s health insurance exchange, for navigators training: Stairstep ($100,000), Minneapolis Urban League ($100,000) and Pillsbury United Communities ($80,000-$100,000) were among several local organizations that were awarded funds.
Babington-Johnson believes that “the most organic instrument in our community is the African American church — a natural access to our people. We are going to tell that story [of the importance of health care and health insurance] through our churches” with help from a recently produced 15-minute short film available for local churches to show their congregations.
There are nearly 20 persons who either have competed navigator training or are close to completion, continued Babington-Johnson. “As we have churches who feel they particularly want to have a navigator, we will facilitate that happening. We want this to succeed. I think right now the issue is how we get our people insured. The bottom line is our people need insurance, and our people [as navigators] can help facilitate that,” he said.
The MSR also contacted two other organizations who according to MNsure also receiving funding — the Minneapolis Urban League and Pillsbury United Communities — but both groups through their spokespersons either declined to comment on the record or said they would speak at a later date.
Babington-Johnson expressed concern that because many persons have had difficulty getting on the MNsure site, this may have “scared” off individuals, especially those who need it the most — uninsured Blacks, low-income individuals, and other persons of color.
“Because it has been necessary to mount this extraordinary, complex undertaking on a national or a local level, this isn’t some simple task,” he pointed out. “This should be expected, [but] there are people who are constantly hyping the negative to dissuade us.
“Is there difficulty? Absolutely, but it’s worth whatever effort it takes. The notion that you can get insurance now…and you couldn’t get it 60 days ago, that’s important to a lot of people in this country. The fact that your child now can be insured until he or she reaches 26 is a very important thing for our community. There is so much good about this [law].”
“I’ve been working for a small business and then working for myself since 1999,” said Vickie Evans-Nash, MSR editor-in-chief, who recently signed up for MNsure. “Health insurance has not been an option for me, because it has been too expensive. Our income was too high to qualify for assistance, and our income was too low to pay for it out of pocket. I applied [to MNsure] for myself and three other family members. It took a lot of time and a lot of information. It was a tedious process.
“On one part of the website you enter information about yourself and your family, and the other side is where you look at insurance plans,” reported Evans-Nash, who began her application process in December. At first, it looked to her that no plan would be affordable.
“But then, when I went over to the other side, all my family information and income information, that’s when it tells you your discount and tax deductions. That’s when I realized how affordable it would be.”
After getting her application forms in the mail in mid-December, Evans-Nash said she continued the process. “When I got the forms, I went back in to choose my plan. Then the website started acting up. I couldn’t get to where I wanted to go.
“Half the time I went on the website, it would tell me it was available between 9 am and midnight, and I would try again between that time, but that was all I could get. It was acting like I was getting on the website after midnight.”
When she tried calling the call center for help, “I was on hold for almost three hours,” Evans-Nash recalled.
Sen. Hayden said that an independent evaluator was looking at the problems. “We need to figure out what happened, what went wrong, and who’s ultimately responsible,” he said. MNsure officials, despite previous assurances that they would, did not respond to MSR’s questions submitted for comment.
“I don’t know if they [MNsure officials] could have foreseen [the problems] — the website wasn’t working and you can’t get anybody on the phone,” noted Evans-Nash, who calculated the total time from start to finish probably took “almost a day.
“I spent about two hours or so on the website trying to figure if I am doing something wrong… I would get so frustrated. I do know I spent time on hold twice — one time I was hold for an hour and a half and gave up, [and] the last call was almost three hours.
‘I was really frustrated with that call because the woman said, ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ The [sign-up] process for me was hard, and it can be hard for people because it takes a lot of time.”
On the other hand, MSR Staff Writer Charles Hallman, author of this story, signed up for MNsure in person. I made an appointment at the Fremont Clinic to see a navigator. The scheduler told me to bring my last year’s tax return and Social Security number. I was given an 11 am appointment, arrived a half-hour before, and was called in.
I was back in my car before 11 am — the entire process took at most 15 minutes, and I was signed up. The woman told me that’s average and she has done over 80 applications since October.
“Seeing how many problems I had, if I had known that I could go in and talk to somebody in 15 minutes and be done, I would rather do that,” admitted Evans-Nash. “But I would rather have done it on line, and have the phone as backup, because you don’t have to switch your work hours and go down to talk to somebody.
“The one good thing that I can say about the ACA is that my family will have health coverage for the first time in 15 years. I am willing to go through whatever I need to go through to get my family insured,” said Evans-Nash.
The ACA “is good for us, and it’s something that others are working hard to prevent us [from getting affordable health care],” noted Babington-Johnson. “We must not allow [opponents] to succeed.”
Minnesotans will benefit from MNsure because it is “a very good insurance at a cost that is affordable,” concluded Hayden. “I still think it is going to work, but we are off to a bumpy start.”
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