Minnesotans still don’t have health-insurance relief as Dayton, lawmakers haggle over how to make it happen

Monday, January 16, 2017

If both Republicans and Democrats agree that the state should pass $300 million in relief for Minnesotans struggling to pay their health insurance, why is it taking months to pass it?

Part of the dispute reflects genuine disagreements about the best way to deliver 25 percent rebate checks to the roughly 120,000 Minnesotans facing soaring health insurance premiums on the individual market but not eligible for federal subsidies. Different options could get relief out faster or could let the state more closely direct the aid to the people who need it most.

But a big part of it is a dispute over process. Republican lawmakers insist that provisions aimed at stabilizing the 2018 insurance market should be passed in the same bill as the emergency relief. Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL lawmakers say reforms and relief should be tackled separately, with relief coming first.

DEMOCRATS: SIMPLE AND SEPARATE

Dayton and DFL lawmakers say a standalone relief package can be passed now, while other reforms should be given a more thorough discussion.

“I implore the Legislature to set everything else aside and get premium relief to people that need it and need it now,” Dayton said.

He said lawmakers should pass relief affecting 2017 insurance first, and deal with reforms affecting the 2018 market later.

But Republicans say market reform is just as necessary as immediate relief, and that the two should be tied together because it’s the right thing.

“Most Minnesotans expect that if we’re going to spend $300 million, we should address some of the underlying problems,” said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake.

REPUBLICANS: SPEED MATTERS FOR REFORMS

The matter with the most urgency is the relief, since open enrollment for 2017 health insurance ends Jan. 31. That means Minnesotans for whom the relief could make a difference in their purchasing decision need to know by then whether they’ll have a state subsidy.

But reforms affecting the 2018 market have time pressure, too. Health insurers say they need to know by March what laws will govern the individual market so they can make their spring rate proposals with full knowledge.

Republicans believe that sooner is better for these reforms, too. Even a few extra weeks could make a difference for an insurer debating whether to offer plans on the individual market or for an employer deciding whether to offer its employees 2018 coverage, they argue.

Dayton, in contrast, believes 2018 reforms are not as urgent and can wait a little longer. Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said the GOP-backed reforms have some issues that need to be ironed out and that more time will help produce better laws. Republicans say any concerns can be sorted out over the next week and aren’t cause to delay action a month or more.

USING RELIEF AS LEVERAGE

Political realities could be another factor.

Though Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature, to pass a bill into law they need Dayton’s signature. And some say they aren’t sure they’ll be able to get Dayton’s signature on insurance reforms if they’re not tied to must-pass relief — despite his promises now.

“Some people said, why not just do the money now?” Senate GOP leader Paul Gazelka said during floor debate Thursday. “There is a level of trust that we don’t have that we want to have.”

Dayton and legislative Democrats insist that they’re open to many of the Republican-backed reforms to stabilize the market, even as standalone bills.

“I don’t want to keep the status quo,” Dayton said Friday. “I can’t imagine why anybody would think that I wouldn’t be agreeable to signing a (reform) bill. It may not be everything that I wanted. But I’m definitely agreeable to signing one.”

Dayton will lay out his own insurance proposals in his State of the State address on Jan. 23.

HISTORICAL ECHO

This first major dispute of the Minnesota Legislature’s 2017 session is in many ways similar to the first major dispute of the 2016 session.

Last year saw Dayton and Republicans agreeing on the need to extend unemployment benefits for steelworkers in Northeast Minnesota affected by mine shutdowns.

But Republicans insisted on pairing the unemployment benefits extension with a reduction in business taxes that filled the state’s unemployment fund.

Dayton and Democrats said they were fine with lowering those taxes, but that it should be done in a separate bill from the unemployment benefits.

Like this year, last year’s debate over unemployment relief occupied the start of the regular legislative session after months of failed talks aimed at resolving it during a special legislative session.

The 2016 standoff was resolved when Republicans backed down and passed two separate bills. Dayton then signed both the relief and the tax break into law, giving Republicans the policy they wanted in return for following the DFL’s preferred process.

But the dispute over process meant the relief was passed two weeks after the session convened instead of right away.

This article first appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. To view the original article, please click here

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