Metro

Health insurer reaches out to customers

A small nonprofit health insurer, burned by a bad experience last year, is taking extra steps to enroll people in the final days of 2014, saying too many consumers are confused about deadlines for the Massachusetts Health Connector.

Minuteman Health spent the past few days calling 4,000 to 5,000 people who selected Minuteman through the Connector, assuring those who had paid their first month’s premium that they were enrolled, and reminding those who had not that the deadline is Sunday to pay for coverage effective Jan. 1.

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Minuteman also announced Friday it will extend its own deadline to Dec. 31 for people who want to buy unsubsidized coverage directly from the company.

The moves reflect the anxiety surrounding this year’s first wave of enrollment through the Connector, whose software failure a year ago remains a fresh memory. While the website is functioning smoothly this year, shifting deadlines and uncertainties about the payment system have led to consternation among some Connector customers, who buy insurance on their own because they do not get it from an employer.

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Thomas D. Policelli, Minuteman’s chief executive officer, said his company had received “panicked phone calls” from customers who were not sure of their status and could not get through to the Connector’s overwhelmed call center, which had wait times of close to an hour Monday and Tuesday.

“A lot of people are very confused,” he said. “Some people thought they hadn’t paid, but had. Some people thought they were done, but weren’t. . . . We’re concerned that come Jan. 1, people will wake up and realize they do not have insurance.”

The deadline for selecting plans through the Connector — the only way to obtain federal or state subsidies — was midnight Tuesday. Minuteman’s extended deadline applies only to those who do not need subsidies and are willing to buy directly from the insurer. Minuteman will provide coverage effective Jan. 1 to those who sign up by midnight Dec. 31 and pay by Jan. 5. Customers can sign up on Minuteman’s website or over the phone.

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Minuteman was licensed in August 2013, hoping to enroll its first customers through the Connector.

But the Connector’s software, redesigned to comply with the federal Affordable Care Act, was so dysfunctional last year that few were able to use it. As a result, Minuteman started its life with only 2,000 subscribers, who bought directly from the company.

Minuteman is a co-op, similar to a mutual insurance company, in which members elect the board of directors and vote on how to spend any profits. The company serves the eastern half of Massachusetts and most of New Hampshire.

This year, while the rebuilt Connector website appears to be working well, the payment system has frustrated some customers, and the deadlines have changed. The payment software, which is separate from the Connector’s website, does not provide confirmation that a payment has been received.

Originally, people were required to select a plan and pay for it by Tuesday. That was already a source of confusion because the deadline in most other states was Dec. 15. On Tuesday, the Connector announced it would extend the deadline for payment to Sunday for those who had chosen a plan.

Kimberly Haberlin, a top aide on the Connector project, said the Connector gave all the insurers, not just Minuteman, the names of their prospective customers so that they could encourage payment by Sunday. Eric Linzer, spokesman for the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, said other plans are also reaching out to members who have chosen the plan but have not paid.

Haberlin defended the Connector’s performance. The hundreds of thousands of people who have used the website to find health insurance demonstrate the effectiveness of the Connector’s outreach and education efforts, she said.

She also noted that many people do not need to buy insurance by Jan. 1, because they are in temporary programs that expire in January. The open enrollment period continues until Feb. 15.

“All individuals who encounter issues with the payment process,” Haberlin added in an e-mail, “are notified via e-mail that they need to contact us to take additional action so that everyone is fully informed about their insurance status and no one experiences an unexpected gap in coverage.”

Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer.
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