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Minn. lawmakers pass health insurance exchange bill

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Health exchange
Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, left, smiles as his health insurance exchange bill passes the Senate Monday, Mar. 18, 2013 and moves on for Gov. Dayton's signature at the State Capitol. At right is Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

THE TAKEAWAY: Think of the health exchange as your HR department.

Minnesota's health insurance exchange will go online Oct. 1. Everyone involved concedes that the legislation creating the exchange is complicated. But it's also true that the exchange will help simplify a process that is already complicated: the way individual consumers now must shop for health insurance.

"The purpose of this infrastructure is to deal with how challenging it is to purchase individual health insurance coverage right now," TakeAction Minnesota's Liz Doyle said on Tuesday's show. "It's a very complicated system, it's difficult to navigate, there's a lot of variation in the quality of the plans that are out there. So the purpose of the health insurance exchange is to offer consumers an opportunity to make an apples to apples comparison among good-quality plans in order to make a well-informed decision for themselves and for their families. The same benefit will be offered to small businesses as well."

Kerri's other guest, Prof. John McDonough from Harvard, likened the exchange to a benefit that many employed people enjoy: a Human Resources department.

"The way I'd ask people to think about an exchange is: You work for an employer and you get health insurance through your job ... there's somebody who's paying attention — in a larger company it's the HR department — to make sure the insurance options that are presented to you as an employee work for you, are affordable, and that you get value for the money," McDonough said. "So if you are an individual out there buying health insurance on your own ... you are basically on your own, without anybody to help you out. And one way to think about an exchange is, it's kind of like an HR department for people who have to go into the market and buy coverage on their own. 

"The job of the exchange is to make sure that it's as easy as possible for you to purchase coverage, that you understand the choices in front of you and you're helped as much as possible to get value."

McDonough said it's also the role of an exchange to stand up for the consumer and "push back" against the insurer to get the best deal possible — again, acting like an HR department "for this population in our society who don't have an HR department to look out for them."

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The Minnesota Senate passed the health insurance exchange bill Monday on a party-line vote. 

The Senate voted 39 to 28 and sent the bill to Gov. Mark Dayton, who has vowed to sign it. It creates a new state office to oversee a website meant to let the uninsured and others shop for health coverage at competitive rates, a cornerstone of President Barack Obama's federal health care overhaul.

The House passed the bill Thursday. No Republican lawmakers voted for the bill in either chamber.

The exchange is supposed to open for enrollment on Oct. 1. 

"This landmark legislation will provide much-needed relief for thousands of Minnesotans struggling with the soaring cost of health care," said Liz Doyle, associate director of TakeAction Minnesota, in a statement after the vote. "An estimated 1.3 million Minnesotans will gain access to affordable coverage on the Minnesota Exchange, including over 300,000 currently uninsured individuals."

We look at what the exchange means for Minnesotans and how it works in Massachusetts, which has had an exchange since 2006.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

For the latest updates, check the MPR News homepage.

LEARN MORE ABOUT HEALTH INSURANCE EXCHANGE:

• Health insurance exchange FAQ. (Minnesota Office of the Governor)

• TakeAction's Liz Doyle Q-A. Doyle discusses what the insurance exchange needs in order to work for Minnesota. (MinnPost)

• Health insurance exchanges explained. Health exchanges were part of the federal Affordable Care Act and based on the Massachusetts model. (NPR)