Lawmakers unveil bill to set up health insurance exchange
ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers are moving ahead with plans to set up a state health insurance exchange — a key part of the 2010 federal health-care law.
A bipartisan group of legislators unveiled a bill Wednesday establishing the exchange with the goal of creating an online marketplace where consumers can comparison shop for health insurance. Clutching an iPad, the bill's author, Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, said the goal is to make it easy for Minnesotans to find affordable insurance that meets their needs.
"A year from now as a result of this legislation, I hope we will be able to have Minnesotans busy their health insurance on a device like this or on their home computer," he said.
Republicans opposed to the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare, fought efforts to set up a state-based exchange in the previous session. But with Democrats in charge and the support of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton,work on the exchange is moving ahead.
Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, is one of two Republicans in the House who has signed onto the bill. While he said he opposes the Affordable Care Act, it is important that Minnesota take steps to set up its own health insurance exchange instead of getting stuck with one run by the federal government.
"My main purpose for wanting to work very hard on this bill is because when someone needs help, I would much rather be calling the area code of 651 rather than the area code of 202," Davids said.
The bill would establish a seven-member board tasked with operating the exchange. The board would determine which insurance companies are authorized to sell insurance as part of the exchange. Enrollment in the exchange would begin in October 2013 with insurance plan coverage starting Jan. 1, 2014. Lawmakers have until the end of March to submit their plan for the exchange to the federal government.
The plan has plenty of critics. Among them is Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.
"I think we shouldn't be doing it, but the governor has made very clear that he wants to do it, he is very much in support of this approach of nationalizing health care. I think the legislative majorities are on track with him to do that, so what we are going to try to do is mitigate the harm that will do because I believe there will be harm," he said.
The cost of running the exchange comes with a hefty price tag. It's expected to cost the state $92 million in 2015 and 2016 and then drop to $56 million per year. To cover those costs, Atkins said the bill calls for withholding up to 3 1/2 percent of premiums paid to the exchange. Ideally, he said the state will only have to withhold 2 1/2 percent of premiums, which would be less than the mandatory 3 1/2 percent that would be withheld under the federal exchange.
Bill supporters say 300,000 uninsured Minnesotans are expected to purchase insurance through the exchange. That, in turn, will help reduce rates for all consumers who end up subsidizing uninsured patients who show up to the emergency room, said House Health and Human Service Finances Chairman Tom Huntley.
"This is a key moment. That fact that we are going to add 300,000 people to the insurance rolls is a huge change and a lot of people don't know it, but you are already paying for people who don't have insurance," Huntley said.
House Health and Human Services Policy Chairwoman Tina Liebling said there is still plenty of work to be done on the bill but she is "really glad to see that it's out there and the work is going to begin shortly."
As for Davids, he said he has several major concerns with the legislation in its current form. He said it's critical to him that the final bill has the backing of the state's business community.
He added, "We have to have buy-in from the business community. We have to have buy-in from small businesses to make this work."