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Minnesotans have a lot to learn about health insurance exchange, obamacare

By John Lundy, Forum Communications

By this time next year, Americans will be in the midst of open enrollment for the first-ever nationwide health insurance exchange.

If you don’t know what that is, you’re not alone.

“I have yet to find a single person in a general audience who knows what it is,” said Dan Maynard.

While health insurance exchanges might not be a topic of conversation at most parties, Maynard has reason to bring it up. He is president of Connecture, a Waukesha, Wis., company that’s in the business of designing online software for health insurance.

It’s an opportune time to be in his business, because the health insurance exchange, mandated under the Affordable Care Act to begin Jan. 1, 2014, will create an online marketplace where people can choose their health insurance plans.

But results of a survey released today suggest a lot of education will need to take place before the exchanges go into effect.

According to the online survey of 1,285 Americans:

— 29 percent understand what a health insurance exchange is.

— 86 percent have never shopped for health insurance online.

— 48 percent said they believe they will need help if they purchase insurance online.

— 49 percent said they don’t know how much their family spends on health insurance.

While many people will probably continue to get health insurance through their employers or through government plans, the act is expected to bring millions of people into the marketplace who don’t fit into those categories.

For them, the exchanges are intended to be a one-stop shop for health insurance.

Maynard’s company already has been hired as a subcontractor for Minnesota’s and Maryland’s health insurance exchanges.

States don’t have to set up a health insurance exchange; they can opt to accept the federal government’s version instead. Either way, the exchanges have to be online and ready to go by October, when open enrollment will begin. States face a deadline of Friday to file their blueprints for their exchanges.

Maynard said he’s surprised there isn’t more knowledge about the insurance exchange, since the Affordable Care Act itself is so well-known.

But state Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, who is a member of the task force devising Minnesota’s exchange, said he’s not surprised or troubled that the concept hasn’t yet entered into the public consciousness.

“Are people able to put into words what a health insurance exchange is? Probably not,” Lourey said. “I don’t think there’s a lot we could have done to change that at this point in the game.”

Lourey said he’s confident that educational efforts will ramp up by next summer.

“If we do our jobs well … it should be pretty user-friendly,” he said. “I think we can bridge the public education piece of it.”

Minnesota is ahead of the game when it comes to setting up its insurance exchange, Maynard said.

“I would put Minnesota as being very progressive and in front of the general population of states,” he said. “If you look at the 50 states that are out there, there are very few that have made the progress that Minnesota has. I put them in a group of a half-dozen or so that are on some form of time schedule that’s capable of making the timeline.”

So far, Wisconsin hasn’t even tried. Like several other states with Republican administrations, it’s taking the approach that the insurance exchange is an unfunded mandate, Maynard said. Those states likely will accept a federal version of the exchange and let the federal government pay for it, he said. Although under the Affordable Care Act the states must assume the costs after two years, some states are challenging that in court.

But letting the federal government run the program would be unacceptable for Minnesota, Lourey said.

“It’s just a one-size-fits-all federally mandated model that doesn’t make any sense in a state that’s got this many resources to draw upon to do a truly phenomenal job of implementing it,” he said.

Nonetheless, considerable challenges lie ahead in the coming months, said Christopher Neuharth, whose title for Connecture is user experience manager.

“For those who try to shop for health insurance individually, it’s a complicated decision,” Neuharth said. “It’s a very personal decision. The exchange is going to have hundreds of products that they’ve never even shopped for in the past. How do you help people to sort through all that and really find what’s right for them?”

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