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Republicans push alternative to health insurance exchange

ST. PAUL — Local Republicans are lining up behind a proposal that backers say offers an alternative to a health insurance exchange plan required under the new federal health care law.

Republicans announced the legislation on Monday. It would set up personal health premium accounts to help individuals purchase private health insurance. It allows employers, family members, charitable organizations and others to contribute to the accounts.

Supporters argue this approach would help make health insurance affordable for more Minnesotans — a key goal of the federal health care law. They say the state should ask the Obama administration for an exception from the Affordable Care Act requirement that the state set up its own health insurance exchange by the end of the year or be stuck with a federal exchange plan that takes effect in 2014. The health insurance exchange would be an online marketplace where individuals and small businesses could go to compare and buy private health insurance.

"I believe there is an opportunity to go to the Obama administration and talk to them about what we think our better solution is to exchanges," said Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester.

The bill is sponsored by two key Republican lawmakers who are chairmen of legislative health care committees — Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, and Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie. Other area lawmakers who back the plan are Rep. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa and Rep. Duane Quam of Byron.


It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration would be open to such waivers. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton supports setting up a state exchange, and the state has received $26 million in federal grants to develop it.

A task force made recommendations for a health insurance exchange, and legislation has been introduced by Democrats based on those recommendations. It is unclear whether Dayton can implement a health insurance exchange without legislative approval.

DFL Rep. Kim Norton, of Rochester, said the Republicans plan is futile if it doesn’t have the support of the governor's administration. She said that if the state fails to come up with its own plan, it would be "disastrous" and that it is unfortunate that the issue has become partisan.

"The whole movement across the country has been to take down the president's plan so anything that looks like it might be cooperating with it has a very partisan ring to it," she said.

The partisan divide was made clear at the Capitol when, moments after Republicans wrapped up their news conference on their health accounts plan, DFLers held one of their own on a bill aimed at providing greater consumer protections as part of a state health insurance exchange.

Bill sponsor Sen. Jeff Hayfield, of Minneapolis, said it’s time to work together and debate the issue.

"In Minnesota, it is time for us to prepare. It is time for us to move forward," Haydensaid. "It is time for us to stop playing partisan politics — extreme partisan politics — on this issue."

Opposition by some Republicans to set up a Minnesota health insurance exchange has put them at odds with some conservative groups, including the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and Minnesota Concerned Citizens for Life.


The chamber supports the Republicans' health premiums accounts proposal, arguing it will help small employers and their employees struggling with soaring health insurance costs. But Kate Johansen, the chamber’s manager of health and transportation policy, said this bill does not address the need for a state exchange plan.

"We have long supported having a Minnesota exchange to prevent imposition of a federal exchange. We don’t think this bill necessarily addresses the situation," she said.

Mayo Clinic officials support setting up a state insurance exchange plan. Dr. Doug Wood of Mayo is on the governor’s exchange task force.

While some warn of the dire consequences if Minnesota does come up with its own plan, opponents of the federal health care law say moving ahead with an exchange would be costly and take money away from health care providers like Mayo Clinic. They also say it would lead to more bureaucratic red tape.

"We want to have a Minnesota solution for the problems we face in Minnesota," Hann said. " We do not to haveany kind of a federal mandated solution forced down our throats."

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