By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — It’s still eight months before coverage will kick in under the Affordable Care Act and five months before people can begin picking their health care plan on Minnesota’s new insurance exchange, but Blue Earth County officials expect crunch time to begin as soon as next month.
County Human Services Director Phil Claussen and Assistant Director Angela Youngerberg are planning to add three full-time staff to help deal with an anticipated flood of questions and applications for the new insurance program, commonly called Obamacare.
The questions are expected next month because that’s when state health care officials are planning a major media blitz to get people thinking about the massive reform of America’s medical insurance system. Everything from TV ads to billboards to social media to town hall meetings are planned.
“What’s going to happen at that point is we’re going to start getting a lot of phone calls,” said Youngerberg, predicting current Medical Assistance recipients and MinnesotaCare enrollees will be concerned and confused about whether their coverage is threatened.
Claussen said he wants his office staffed well enough to get people the answers they need.
“We don’t want to breed more confusion because there will be confusion already,” he said.
Americans who work for large companies and get insurance through their jobs might not see much change under Obamacare. Other middle-class Americans without job-related insurance benefits will be able to pick from among private insurance policies offered through an online insurance exchange with government subsidies helping cover the cost of premiums depending on a person’s income level.
People will be able to begin using the exchange, called MNsure in this state, to pick the policy that’s best for them starting in October. Benefits will kick in Jan. 1. Eventually, nearly 30 million uninsured Americans are expected to receive coverage under the reform.
Low-income people will still be covered under Medicaid, known as Medical Assistance in Minnesota, and that program is being expanded to reach people well above the federal poverty line. Many Minnesotans eligible for MinnesotaCare, the state-subsidized program for lower-income working people, will soon be having their eligibility checked by county-based workers rather than state employees.
The projection in Blue Earth County is 1,552 new cases. With case managers in the county handling roughly 250 cases each, the county would seem to need more than the three new employees being planned.
Claussen said the intent is to start with three and reassess staffing needs later in the year. Some counties are predicting that after the initial wave of applicants, staffing needs will decline — possibly even returning to current levels.
County commissioners had different predictions about how the new insurance exchange would work. Commissioner Mark Piepho, paraphrasing one U.S. senator involved in the creation of the Affordable Care Act, worried that implementation could be “a train wreck.”
Board Chairman Drew Campbell wondered if understanding the insurance exchanges might be more similar to junior high school algebra. Campbell said he recalled a “deer in the headlights” reaction when first looking at algebra equations but learned, after sitting down with someone who understood it, that algebra made sense.
“It’s not as difficult as it sometimes sounds like from the outside,” Campbell said.
The Affordable Care Act will provide federal funding for 75 percent of the salaries for county workers who handle applicant eligibility for at least the first two years of the program — and that applies to all 21 of Blue Earth County’s existing eligibility workers along with the three new staffers. Currently, the federal reimbursement is 50 percent.
“It does buy us some time for this transition, so it’s good news,” Claussen said.