Some Republicans not sold on eliminating MN Care

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Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood MPR File photo | Alex Kolyer

Eliminating a public health care program called MinnesotaCare could end up being a critical part of the budget plan adopted by the Republican-controlled Minnesota House.

But at least one Republican legislator says he doesn't support a bill to get rid of MinnesotaCare. In committee he voted against the legislation, which is sponsored by Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood.

"From an employer's standpoint, in greater Minnesota and as a small employer... I just didn't think today is the day to say goodbye to MinnesotaCare. I have employees who are still using it," said Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, who operates restaurants and hotels in the Willmar area. "We're not quite there yet, but down the road it's something we should address."

MinnesotaCare is more than two decades old. It provides state subsidies to help people buy health insurance when they make too much money to qualify for Medical Assistance, but  don't get coverage through an employer and can't afford to buy their own plan.

Dean's plan would move these participants to MNsure, the state's health insurance exchange, where they would buy a health insurance plan that Dean says will be better tailored to their needs. Dean said his proposal could save roughly $900 million, with some of that money being spent on other GOP priorities like nursing home funding.

House Republicans are also planning to cut taxes by $2 billion over the next two years.

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By and large, most MinnesotaCare enrollees live in rural parts of the state, and largely in districts like Baker's, which are represented by Republicans.

Securing support from members of the GOP caucus will be critical for the survival of the Republican's budget, and groups backing MinnesotaCare will be targeting Republican legislators who represent the majority of MinnesotaCare's enrollees in the coming weeks.

Over the Legislature's Easter and Passover break, the liberal group TakeAction Minnesota has organized a phone bank effort in key districts promoting the benefits of MinnesotaCare. And the group has also spearheaded a letter writing campaign in support of MinnesotaCare that's been signed by more than 80 groups, including the American Heart Association and UCare, a prominent Minnesota health insurance firm.

These groups are concerned that MinnesotaCare enrollees will end up spending more to find insurance on the exchange.

Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, represents hundreds of MinnesotaCare participants, and he said he backs Dean's plan both as a way to save money and to give consumers more choice in their plans.

But he wants to make sure participants get some financial help. Dean's plan provides some subsidy, but he hasn't said how much.

Lueck also wants to ensure that MNsure is working better before 100,000 MinnesotaCare participants are required to buy insurance on the exchange.

"That exchange has got to be working properly right up front, and it's obviously not," Lueck said.

Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, isn't as familiar with Dean's plan, but hasn't ruled out supporting it.

"We want to make sure that people have a plan that's adequate for their needs, so I'd certainly want to make sure that happens before we do this," Anderson said.

Newly elected Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Brown's Valley, hasn't committed to supporting Dean's plan, either, though he likes the basics of the plan. Backer said he wants to expand health insurance options for low-and-middle income Minnesotans and thinks Dean's plan may do that.