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Family: Glitches made MNsure into a ‘horror story’

Desirae Marchand of Proctor sorts through insurance paperwork at her home Wednesday. (Clint Austin / / 2
Desirae Marchand of Proctor writes notes on her hand while talking on the phone with her health insurance provider at her home Wednesday about prescription coverage. Marchand and her husband, Timothy, thought they had insurance for 2014 when they hit “submit” on the MNsure website in December. They didn’t find out until January that insurer Preferred One didn’t have a record of them, hadn’t received their payment and that the premium was higher than they thought. (Clint Austin / / 2

It was Dec. 19, and Timothy Marchand clicked on “confirm payment” on the MNsure website.

Timothy and his wife, Desirae, who live in Proctor’s Zenith Terrace manufactured home community, were secure in the knowledge that they had health insurance locked up for 2014.

Their 10-year-old daughter, Rena, would be covered under Medical Assistance, and her parents had chosen a private plan through Preferred One that would limit their deductible to $1,500. Better yet, the premium was much more manageable than they originally had thought.

“My husband hits the button that says ‘confirm payment,’ and it tells us you have paid $148.74; this will be your monthly premium,” Desirae recalled. “So we’re like, ‘Awesome.’ ”

It didn’t turn out that way.

On Jan. 10, with Desirae’s medications running low, she discovered that Preferred One didn’t have any record of health insurance for the couple, and the money they had paid for the premium didn’t nearly cover the full amount.

That was the start of what Desirae calls their “MNsure horror story.” It was April before everything was sorted out and May before their premium payment stabilized. In between, they spent hours on the phone and on the computer, wading through contradictory information and seeing bills mount despite their best efforts.

‘Rollout was rocky’ The Affordable Care Act was passed so that people such as the Marchands could afford health care. But in Minnesota and across the country, good intentions met the reality of an overwhelmed bureaucracy and inadequate computer programming in its inaugural year.

No one would say that MNsure had a smooth beginning.

“It isn’t news to this committee that MNsure’s rollout was rocky,” then-interim MNsure CEO Scott Leitz told a U.S. House committee on April 3. “Our initial launch in October was plagued by software errors and technical glitches.”

But the problems continued long beyond the initial launch.

MNsure spokeswoman Jenni Bowring-McDonough said wait times to speak with someone at the MNsure call center sometimes reached 90 minutes to two hours in December and January. The dysfunctional computer system was at fault, not call center personnel, she said.

Undiagnosed condition The Marchands’ story is a reminder that the problems have affected real people, including those who could least afford an interruption in health care coverage.

Timothy and Desirae started dating as students at Duluth East High School. He graduated in 1997, Desirae a year later, and they were married in 2001.

Timothy, who is employed at Duluth Tire, is a “workaholic,” his wife said. He previously had worked as a tow truck driver, in parts sales and as a mechanic, often having to move on when his employers went out of business.

Desirae’s health marred her ability to hold a job. Her struggles began at 15 with attacks of vertigo, and she has since suffered with thyroid problems, stomach problems, nausea, chronic pain and memory loss.

The root of her condition has never been diagnosed.

“Right now, my doctor’s going with migraine,” Desirae said, laughing skeptically.

She’d get a job, but when the health problems cropped up, she’d be asked to take a medical leave or her hours would be cut. She enrolled in the Dislocated Workers Program at the Government Workforce Center, where a job counselor told her she should apply for Social Security disability. After a process that lasted nine years, she was denied.

“I fought and I fought and it got to the point where the anxiety of fighting for it wasn’t worth it anymore,” Desirae said. “My husband works, works, works. And I haven’t had to.”

Turning to MNsure With one income, the Marchands have struggled financially. Their health insurance was covered by the state’s Minnesota Care program last year. But at the end of November, they received a letter saying they wouldn’t qualify in 2014. That led them to the search for a private plan via MNsure’s website. They chose a higher-end platinum plan through Preferred One because the deductible would be lower: Desirae’s medications alone cost $630 per month.

The website calculated their monthly premium as $356.84, with a tax credit based on their income level factored in. And although they were pleasantly surprised to learn the actual payment was $148.74, the Marchands didn’t think to question it. They reasoned that it was similar to what they had been paying with Minnesota Care, Desirae explained.

But on Jan. 9, concerned because she still hadn’t received an insurance card, she called MNsure to inquire.

During an interview, she referred to a binder filled with records. Because of her memory issues, Desirae carefully documents such things.

Her records show that she started calling MNsure at 10 a.m. on Jan. 9 and continued trying each half-hour. Each time she heard an automated message saying wait times were in excess of 30 minutes and a suggestion of calling during nonpeak hours. At 5:30, she called and stayed on hold until 7:30.

Then, she heard this automated message: “Thank you for calling MNsure. We are now closed. Please call back during normal business hours.”

The glitch She started earlier the next day and got through at 8:15 a.m., Desirae said. She was told that there had been a glitch in the system and that her husband had been dropped off during the policy verification. To add her husband back, she would need to send another check for $209.10.

(The actual difference between the amount they paid in December and the premium they were being asked to pay was $208.10, a discrepancy that wasn’t explained.)

“Are you telling me that thousands of people are under the impression that they have affordable insurance … but the premium they paid is only covering one person in the household?” Desirae asked. “And she says, “This is unfortunate, but, yes, this is happening to almost everyone I’ve talked to today,’ ”

Bowring-McDonough confirmed that the glitch occurred but said it actually affected only about 400 households.

“We do believe this glitch has been attended to,” she said. But for those who were affected, “it was distressing and confusing, I’m sure.”

Preferred One dealt with many instances of dependents being dropped by the MNsure computer system, said Steve Peterson, the company’s marketing director.

The Marchands sent a check for the additional $209.10 the next day, Desirae said, and it cleared their bank on Jan. 13. After daily calls, they were told on Jan. 20 that Preferred One had received that check — but not the $148.74 they had paid MNsure in December.

‘Pinching pretty tight’ Meanwhile, Desirae was out of time on her medications. Without an insurance ID number, she went to the pharmacy at the Essentia Health West Duluth Clinic. They worked with her, she said, and she was able to go home with her 10 most essential prescriptions filled.

The next day, she finally got her insurance number.

But by Feb. 20, a Preferred One supervisor told Desirae they still had no record of their tax credit or of their original payment to MNsure. The supervisor told her not to make a payment until matters were cleared up, and not to worry about getting cut off.

So the numbers on their Preferred One statements continued to rise: It had been $894.41 on Feb. 7 and it was $1,508 on March 11. The Marchands couldn’t help but worry that they’d be cut off after all, so they scraped together a payment of $1,100.

“We were pinching pretty tight,” Desirae said. “If I had had to come up with the $1,500 deductible all at one time, we would have been in trouble.”

Things turned around on April 9, when their tax credit of $725 finally was applied. The Marchands actually had overpaid, and their April bill was only $295. Finally, in May, it was what it should have been all along: $356.84.

“I’m breathing now as of April 9,” Desirae said.

Better next year? Bowring-McDonough noted that MNsure recognized its problems, beefing up its call center by 100 employees in February. Despite the difficulties, MNsure had enrolled 233,000 people in health insurance plans as of Wednesday, she said.

“We’re striving to make the next open enrollment period better for consumers, as it should be, and to give them the online experience that they would expect,” Bowring-McDonough said.

Preferred One, which enrolled 60 percent of MNsure’s private plans, also expects better things.

“We’ve met with different departments to learn what worked and didn’t work and where we could improve our process going forward,” said Theresa Maslowski, the insurer’s director of individual product. “It’s been really a learning experience for everybody.”

But perhaps too much was attempted too soon, Desirae Marchand said.

“Who’s going to expect a website to work that quickly?” she asked. “I think if it was a much more long-term turnover with much more help, I think it could have been OK. It was a nice concept, but not incredibly logical.”