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Key health insurance deadline draws near

There is less than a month remaining for most people to buy health insurance in 2014.

That's a message local agents, insurance companies and officials at the new Minnesota exchange fear the public hasn't yet grasped.

"Nobody knows about it," said Jean Faber, an agent at Midstate Insurance Services of Wadena. "Nobody's talking about what happens after March 31 ... My main concern is that we will have a lot of families not covered."

Before the federal and state online marketplaces launched October 1, insurance was available for most people throughout the year. Under the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, there are designated windows.

The deadline to buy coverage that begins April 1 is March 15, while people have until March 31 to purchase policies that begin May 1. After that, coverage will only be available after major life events, such as marriage, a birth of a child, the death of a spouse or loss of employment. The deadline does not apply to those eligible for medical assistance, MinnesotaCare or the Small Business Health Options Program.

A shorter open enrollment period for coverage beginning in 2015 will begin sometime in November, said Jenni Bowring-McDonough, spokeswoman for MNsure, Minnesota's online exchange. "We've just haven't settled on a date," she said.

Those who can afford insurance (the federal standard is if premiums amount to eight percent or less of income) but choose not to buy it by March 31 will face a fine of $95 per person or one percent of annual income - whichever is higher. It's due by April 15, 2015.

The penalty will increase each year, escalating to $695 per person by 2016.

Less than a quarter of America's uninsured are aware of the March 31 open enrollment deadline, according to a February poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Health insurance companies have ramped up advertising to reach the oblivious. Medica, one of Minnesota's largest health insurance providers, is running a humorous series of commercials, featuring things people might regret - drive thru weddings, impulsive tattoos, bad hair dye jobs, etc.

"We're taking a tongue-in-cheek approach," Medica spokesman Greg Bury said. "If you don't buy your insurance before the deadline you're going to regret it."

MNsure is also increasing marketing and outreach to encourage people buy insurance when they still can.

"I hope we are communicating that as strongly as we can," Bowring-McDonough said. "It's human nature that people will wait until the last several days of an open enrollment period ... Folks will wait until they really need to make those decisions."

Plagued for months by software snafus, the exchange is working more smoothly now, she said.

"We're not saying everything is perfect," Bowring-McDonough said. "But it's markedly better. There's still work to be done and we are taking that very seriously."

MNsure has doubled it's call center staff, which has reduced average wait times from more than an hour to less than three minutes.

Bury said the site "really has improved quite a bit. By and large, it's getting better."

Customer service may be on the upswing, but officials at Wadena County Human Services said the MNsure is still a mess. The department processes medical assistance and MinnesotaCare applications, which will still be available year round for qualifying lower-income or disabled residents.

"For MA and MinnesotaCare there are some real issues," said Paul Sailer, human services director. "We continue to get calls from people who are frustrated."

He said his staff are having problem sharing information, processing applications and are required to use two different systems because MNsure isn't yet equipped to handle retroactive coverage.

In-person help navigating the MNsure exchange is available for free at six Wadena locations.

Human services employs four navigators - workers who were trained to help people sign up for insurance through the exchange. There are also navigators at Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership, David Paulson Agency, Toby Pierce and Associates, Farm Bureau Services and Midstate.

Navigators are only allowed to assist enrollments; they can't offer advice.

Faber, a licensed insurance agent who is also a trained navigator, recommends seeking professional guidance when choosing a plan.

"Today, there is so much misinformation out about the Affordable Care Act that you really need to talk to somebody," she said.

With so many options with different premiums, deductibles and maximum out-of-pocket expenses, she said, it gets complicated and many people "need help to get through the entire maze."