MARSHALL - By now, many Minnesotans already know there are some big changes on the horizon for their health care insurance coverage. But those changes come with a lot of questions, and speakers at a community forum held in Marshall on Wednesday night said they wanted to help people get their questions answered.
"This is all about helping people get access," both to helpful information and needed health care, said Carolyn Link of the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Minnesota Foundation.
Western Community Action and the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Minnesota Foundation hosted a community forum on new health care coverage options at the Marshall-Lyon County Library. Besides offering a chance for area residents to ask questions about health coverage, speakers at the forum explained some of the basics of the Affordable Care Act and the MNsure health insurance market and spotlighted local resources to help consumers navigate them.
Western Community Action development director Allan Bakke said WCA plans to hold a series of forums on health care coverage throughout the organization's service area. WCA is currently working to organize forums in Tracy and Westbrook, he said.
Christina Wessel, deputy director of the Minnesota Budget Project, kicked off the forum by discussing how the Affordable Care Act works and how it will impact Minnesotans. The Affordable Care Act is designed to make sure more people have access to affordable, quality health insurance, Wessel said. The act creates new consumer protection measures that will help more people get coverage - for example, she said, consumers with preexisting health conditions could not be excluded from health coverage and would not be faced with higher premiums because of their condition. Wessel said the ACA also establishes a set of essential health benefits that would be covered by insurance, which covers a spectrum from emergency services and prescription drugs to mental health and preventive care.
While the changes may mean higher health insurance costs for some, Wessel said, there was also a benefit to having health insurance that actually covered consumers' health care needs. Some lower-cost plans, she said, "may have been insurance that wasn't really meeting their needs but just appeared to be cost-effective."
At the state level, Wessel said the MNsure insurance marketplace will also play a key part in helping Minnesotans get the health coverage they need. By creating a MNsure account, Minnesotans can enroll in a health plan but also find out if they are eligible for public programs like Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare, or for financial assistance to help pay for health insurance.
Many people may not realize that they're eligible for some form of assistance in paying for health insurance, Wessel said. Adults with income up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level may be eligible for Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare. According to 2013 figures, a family of four with about $47,000 in income would be at 200 percent of the poverty level, Wessel said. Adults with income up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level may be eligible for federal tax credits to reduce the cost of their insurance premiums.
Wessel said it was estimated that MNsure will help reduce the number of uninsured Minnesotans by 300,000.
Some of the audience questions at the forum focused on the difficulty of signing up for MNsure.
"We want to know why we can't get on the website ever," one audience member asked.
Wessel said MNsure was continuing to improve its website, although MNsure still depends on information from the federal government to make the site work.
Speaker Elaine Cunningham, of the Children's Defense Fund, said there are other resources that can help Minnesotans find and pay for health insurance. The Children's Defense Fund has an online tool called Bridge to Benefits that can help users learn if they are eligible for public programs or tax credits. The Bridge to Benefits site is at www.bridgetobenefits.org.
There are also resources specifically geared toward the MNsure system. MNsure is training certified navigators and brokers to guide consumers through the enrollment process and find health plans that work best for them. Cunningham said paper enrollment forms are also available. However, they can take a long time to process, and MNsure isn't encouraging their use.
Bakke emphasized that there are local resources to help area residents, too. Western Community Action is in the process of training nine MNsure navigators to help area consumers. Although the navigators aren't officially ready to work with the public yet, Bakke urged area residents to contact Western Community action with questions. The organization may still be able to help low- to moderate-income residents find out if they are eligible for Human Services benefits. Starting in December, Bakke said, there will also be MNsure help sessions held at the Marshall-Lyon County Library.