Legislators move MNsure changes

Two bills that would change how the state's health insurance exchange operates have cleared initial hurdles in the Minnesota House.

One bill sponsored by Rep. Tara Mack, R-Apple Valley, attempts to overhaul how federal subsidies are given out for people who can't afford insurance.

The bill would require Minnesota officials to seek federal waivers to allow anyone to access those subsidies, whether they buy insurance through MNsure or directly from an insurance company. Right now, only individuals who buy insurance on the online exchange can get financial help.

Mack said that the legislation is meant to protect consumers from having to use what she called a "broken system."

"We as legislators are not here to ensure that MNsure continues to exist," said Mack. "We don’t have a whole lot of hope at this point that [the website] is going to get a whole lot better."

It's an idea that doesn't work for Democrats, who contend MNsure has improved dramatically since it launched in the fall of 2013. Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said that giving subsidies to buy insurance anywhere would undermine MNsure.

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"There are other reasons why MNsure as an entity is better than buying insurance in other places," Liebling said. "MNsure allows consumers to compare plans side-by-side."

Legislators amended Mack's bill, including one change that would require stricter background checks for people who help consumers sign up for plans sold on MNsure.

Another amendment would allow insurance brokers and county officials to sit on the MNsure board, and it would prevent MNsure from setting stricter standards for plans sold on the exchange than what is set out in the Affordable Care Act - a provision long supported by the business community.

Mack's bill has support in the House, but its future is uncertain in the DFL-controlled Senate where Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, has a plan to make MNsure a traditional state agency, accountable to the Legislature. And it's unlikely Gov. Mark Dayton, who backs the exchange, would sign it.

Meanwhile, the House Government Operations Committee unanimously approved a bill that would strip MNsure's exemptions from some state technology rules.

For instance, the bill, sponsored by Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, would require that MN.IT to approve MNsure's technology projects from now on, and divide projects coming in at more than $1 million into phases, each of which would be reviewed by MN.IT.

During the committee hearing, Kahn stressed that she wanted MNsure to follow state internet technology rules all along, but that those provisions were cut in the final days of debate over the bill that established MNsure.  Supporters of the exemptions said that MNsure needed to be developed on a fast-track and that MN.IT oversight would slow the project down.

Last month, the state's Legislative Auditor identified the exemptions as a critical flaw behind MNsure's troubled roll out.

According to testimony from the Legislative Auditor's office, that meant MN.IT officials were effectively barred from critical discussions and decisions. And while MN.IT staff eventually were given more influence over the website's development, it was late in the process.