Minnesota has no time to waste in crafting a health insurance relief plan

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Legislators should move quickly to provide relief for consumers. 

Work by Minnesota lawmakers on a plan to provide emergency assistance to consumers facing health insurance price hikes should have begun within minutes after Gov. Mark Dayton’s Friday news conference.

Both parties have blamed the other, particularly in the past week, for the steep increases. The reality is that both failed during the last legislative session to enact reforms to stabilize the state’s individual health-insurance market. Roughly 5 percent of Minnesotans buy private insurance on their own instead of through a job or programs such as Medicare.

Now, lawmakers have just days to craft a solution for beleaguered consumers. Dayton conditioned Friday’s welcome call for a special session — which the Editorial Board has repeatedly argued for — on the submission of a detailed plan by Nov. 1. That’s not a lot of time, and some sticky details must be ironed out during the last days of a tumultuous election cycle. But providing relief is imperative. Leaders ought to view this as opportunity to put politics aside and prove their deal-making abilities.

Supportive statements during the past week from Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, inspire confidence that a short-term aid plan can be crafted. But rhetoric needs to be swiftly translated into action so a special session can take place as soon as possible.

Many of those who buy insurance individually are entrepreneurs, farmers and small-business people. While many qualify financially for federal assistance newly available under the Affordable Care Act, not all do. Those whose incomes place them outside the health law’s financial aid limits simply cannot shoulder 50 percent to 67 percent monthly premium increasesfor 2017 coverage. The Dec. 15 deadline for buying coverage means consumers have only a few weeks to figure out how — or if — they can.

State assistance would not be cheap. The governor has proposed setting aside $313 million that was intended for the state’s $1.9 billion “rainy day” reserve, with the $313 million representing the upper end of cost estimates. The diversion is an appropriate use of these dollars. Details on how and when the dollars would flow to consumers are still being worked out. But a DFL proposal to use state funds to cap insurance premiums at 9.6 percent of personal income is a good start.

State leaders’ push for a short-term fix must be followed by an equally urgent push for longer-term solutions, such as a reinsurance program like Alaska has. Tapping other funding sources — such as nonprofit insurers’ excess reserves — must also be explored. Otherwise, another emergency round of consumer relief will be needed next year.

Dayton argued for congressional action. His point is fair. As part of anti-Obamacare efforts, congressional Republicans undermined a key federal aid program intended to offset insurers’ costs as the individual market stabilized. The cut is one reason rates increased.

But hoping Congress will strengthen the law after the bitter 2016 election is a dubious strategy. Minnesota is home to world-class providers, policy experts and insurers. Wise politicians would consult them on next steps, not wait for Congress to act.

This article originally appeared in the Star Tribune. To view the original article, please click here

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