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MNsure health plan rates may be secret until October

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Minnesota law requires insurers applying to sell plans in the state to submit rate proposals to the Department of Commerce, which ultimately decides whether to the plans can be sold. Since 2009, that rate information has been kept secret until the plans goes into effect.
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

If you're wondering how much you might have to pay for a health plan sold on MNsure, Minnesota's health insurance exchange, you're going to have to wait.

Several other states, including California and Oregon have already revealed the premium rates health insurers want to charge for plans to be sold on the exchanges in those states. The state exchanges will likely foster the most significant changes in the health insurance system since Medicaid and Medicare were enacted in the 1960s.

In Minnesota, carriers have already filed their rate proposals with regulators, but state law requires keeping them confidential until October.

Despite that, there are important potential customers of MNsure who are eager to find out how much coverage might cost them.

Kate Johansen, who works on health issues for the state's largest business group, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said premium costs are a chief concern for the small businesses she hears from.

"In talking with small employers around the state, many have expressed concerns about what the premiums will be once those premiums are revealed in the fall," Johansen said.  A key state lawmaker is pushing to make rate information available sooner.

"I think if folks are hearing about the rates over the summer, that may intrigue them a bit," said Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, chief House author of legislation that established MNsure.

Minnesota law requires insurers applying to sell plans in the state to submit rate proposals to the Department of Commerce, which ultimately decides whether to the plans can be sold. Since 2009, that rate information has been kept secret until the plans goes into effect.

In the case of plans offered on the exchange, that date is Oct. 1, when MNSure goes live.

Atkins supports the current system, saying it fosters competition between insurers.

"It prompts the carriers to put their best foot forward when they do their rate filing," he said. "If they can see each other's rates, then what they tend to do is just under-bid one another by a nickel or two, and it doesn't drive down prices."

But Atkins believes that consumers should have more information about what they can expect from the exchange, a program that will rely on a large number of enrollees for its success. 

Atkins, a lawyer, said as he reads current law, the state can reveal the proposed premium rates before Oct. 1 if the insurers proposing them remain anonymous. He said doing so would inform the public and could help insurers as well.

"Maybe that strikes that 'best of' spot where you get both [the insurers'] best effort to file their lowest rate at the outset, and yet then if they find out later on that they're not even in the ballpark, it may allow the ones that are coming in a little high to take another shot at it and become more competitive," he said.

MNsure is a product of the federal health care overhaul President Barack Obama signed into law in March 2010. It's primarily meant for people who lack coverage through their employer and small businesses that want to provide some level of coverage for their employees.

But cost has been a major question mark.

In California and Oregon, potential exchange participants got an early look at premium rates--but not necessarily how much they'll have to pay.

In California, for example, individual coverage proposed for sale on the exchange carries an average premium of $321 per month for a high-end plan.

In Oregon, the premiums to provide more stripped-down coverage to a 21-year-old non-smoker in the Portland area ranged from as little as $132 a month to as much as $330 a month.

 Lisa Morawski, communications manager for Oregon's exchange, said these preliminary rates don't mean much at this point. They're still subject to approval by the state and they don't factor in the financial subsidies available from the federal government.

"For most people, it doesn't matter what the rate is, it's what your income is," said Morawski, referring to the income requirements participants must meet to receive the federal help.

In Minnesota, nine insurers have submitted plans to the commerce department to be offered on the state's exchange. It is unclear when or if the department and the Dayton administration would disclose the rates the insurers have proposed before MNsure goes live in October.