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Minnesota Democrats blast exchange minority outreach

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Democrats on a panel that oversees Minnesota’s new online health insurance exchange tore into its leaders Tuesday, charging they have failed so far to adequately reach out to minority communities with high numbers of uninsured people.

“I appreciate the work you’ve done, but you blew it,” Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said to the executive director and the board chairman of MNsure, the state’s vehicle for delivering requirements of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). “You just flat out didn’t get it right, and I’ll say it again and again,” he said.

At issue in a hearing of the Legislature’s MNsure Oversight Committee was an initial round of $4 million in grants from MNsure to 30 organizations that are supposed to help uninsured and underinsured people navigate the new online marketplace and purchase coverage. A number of groups that work with minority communities, particularly African and African-American ones, were mostly left out of the first round of grants, including well-established organizations like the Minneapolis Urban League.

“Do these groups know about how Somalis communicate? No, they don’t,” said Fartun Weli, founder of a Minneapolis nonprofit group that promotes healthy lifestyles to Somali women. “We were thinking MNsure would be an opportunity for system change and fairness.”

April Todd-Malmlov, MNsure’s executive director, said she believed the logic behind the first round of grant decisions would be clearer once more details about the grantees can be released. She said that was likely to happen by the end of the month when the grants are officially awarded.

“Our intention, I think everyone’s intention, is we want to reach the populations that need it,” Todd-Malmlov said. She said MNsure leaders were looking to free up more money for further grants, and also noted that another $11 million would be available for direct payments to groups for every individual person they help enroll in MNsure.

But Malmlov gave no indication the initial $4 million grants would be reconsidered. Under questioning from Hayden, she acknowledged that no black employees of MNsure were part of the team that awarded the grants.

Hayden, who is the Senate’s deputy majority leader, also criticized MNsure’s TV ad campaign, which features Minnesota’s mythical folk hero Paul Bunyan, as ineffective in reaching people some in minority communities, particularly new immigrants. “They don’t relate to a 27-foot-tall white guy with a beard,” he said. He suggested some of the millions being spent on the campaign should be redirected to reaching minority communities.

Enrollment in MNsure begins on Oct. 1, giving the uninsured and others a way to compare and purchase health plans from a handful of providers. Some will be eligible for federal tax subsidies to help cover the costs. Coverage purchased on the exchange is effective starting Jan. 1. State officials are expecting that about 300,000 Minnesota residents currently without health insurance will get coverage on the exchange.

Hayden was not alone in his criticisms of MNsure’s decisions so far. Several other lawmakers joined his objections about minority outreach, and Democrats and Republicans on the panel criticized other aspects of the grant-making process as well as other parts of MNsure.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said she worried that many rural Minnesota residents would not have enough choices on MNsure.

Sheran said those who supported MNsure’s creation have a lot riding on it. “If this is unsuccessful, there will be a lot of criticism from all quarters,” she said.

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