Republican challenger Johnson eager to use MNsure against Gov. Dayton

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Gov. Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton speaks with reporters about his handling of MNsure.
Tom Scheck / MPR News

Republican gubernatorial nominee Jeff Johnson sees an opportunity in news that MNsure has lost its most popular insurer to pick up votes against Gov. Mark Dayton.

When PreferredOne announced this week that it is dropping out of the state's online insurance exchange, Johnson said that and other problems with MNsure show Dayton should lose his job.

In the last few days, Johnson has made MNsure his number one issue in the campaign. After criticizing Dayton on PreferredOne on Tuesday, yesterday Johnson went to Mack Engineering in Minneapolis where he and owner Jennifer Salisbury talked about how the federal health care law affects small businesses.

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"Our company will be receiving a 34 percent increase in our premium," Salisbury said.

Standing beside Johnson, Salisbury criticized Dayton for not accepting an offer from the White House to allow small businesses to keep their existing insurance plans for two years even if they don't comply with Affordable Care Act standards.

"This is impacting businesses. This is impacting people," Salisbury said. "This isn't small potatoes. This isn't something that just a few of us are experiencing." Johnson said Dayton should have followed the lead of governors in other states and accepted the Obama Administration's offer to temporarily waive the rules for small businesses. "Thirty nine governors said yes -- Democrats and Republicans," Johnson said. "Mark Dayton said no. He wouldn't stand up for the Mack Engineerings of Minnesota." Dayton quickly countered that, from what he heard of his opponent's remarks, Johnson "doesn't know what he's talking about."

The governor said he didn't grant the waiver because it would have increased insurance rates for 75 percent of the small businesses enrolled in small group coverage. According to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, those employers currently offer health coverage that complies with the Affordable Care Act.

Dayton said granting the waiver for the other 25 percent that are not in compliance would have raised rates as much as 10 percent.

"To allow the companies whose plans are deficient to remain out of compliance ... that raises the rates on all the rest," he said.

Johnson clearly thinks Dayton is vulnerable on MNsure. He said the problems getting the exchange up and running last year through this week's news that PreferedOne is quitting MNsure show that the governor is not an effective manager.

"Mark Dayton was desperate to be the first governor in the country to implement Obamacare in Minnesota through MNsure," Johnson said. "He got to hand pick his board and hand pick his staff, and it has been an unmitigated disaster from day one." But given that the Affordable Care Act is a federal law, Johnson would likely have few options to change the current system if he becomes governor. He said he'd ask the Obama Administration to allow Minnesota to opt out of the system.

Johnson said he would fire MNsure executives and remove the current board members. But he said he would allow not scrap MNsure.

Dayton acknowledged that MNsure got off to a rocky start but he said the system has been working better. He criticizes Johnson for not offering solutions on health care.

"One of the telling points is that they don't offer an alternative," the governor said. "It's go back to what existed before. It's go back to this 'wild west' where everybody offers something and you get people who think they're insured and covered but find when they get sick or their loved ones get sick that they're not covered."

It's not clear how many people will cast their ballots based on MNsure. 54,500 people bought private plans through the exchange. Another 185,000 are enrolled in public plans like Medicaid. The number of enrollees is a fraction of the total electorate.

Even Salisbury, the business owner who stood alongside Johnson at Thursday's press conference, suggested it wasn't her top concern.

"I'm going to vote on a lot of issues," she said. "My world is not just this, but I feel strongly about people hearing the information."

That won't deter Jeff Johnson. He's scheduled to hold another news conference on MNsure today.

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