Lawmakers back aid for Minnesotans hurt by health coverage cost hikes

The full House Chamber.
The Legislature is expected to pass a compromise bill that takes $327 million from the budget reserve to give a 25 percent rebate to anyone who purchases coverage on the individual market for 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Updated 3:50 p.m. | Posted 2:28 p.m.

Minnesota House and Senate negotiators on Wednesday finalized a compromise bill to deliver health insurance premium relief to thousands of Minnesotans. The Legislature is expected to pass it Thursday and send it to Gov. Mark Dayton, who's expected to sign it.

The bill takes $327 million from the budget reserve to give a 25 percent rebate to anyone who purchases coverage on the individual market for 2017.

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It also includes important reforms, including a provision that helps people who've lost their coverage to keep seeing their doctor, said state Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake.

"That was something that came out of the House of Senate and the governor agreed to," she said. "We had to give an extra $15 million to cover that. But we're trying really hard to work with the governor and get this relief to Minnesotans as fast as we can, and keep the full commitment to 25 percent premium reduction."

Insurance companies will handle the rebates as part of premium invoices. The bill sets an April deadline for the discounts.

Benson said the deal will provide some certainty to insurance buyers.

"We have a lot of people who are sort of holding their breath, trying to figure out if they can afford this." she said. "We hope this really sends the signal that if you're in the individual market we're moving this as fast as we can to the governor's desk."

Republicans managed to get some of their longer-range reform measures in the bill, including one that allows for-profit insurers into the market.

Opening the door to for-profit firms may be the bill's biggest change, said Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska.

"We might not have any that want to come here, but we wanted that in there just in case," he said. "We have some parts of our state where we only have one provider."

Missing from the compromise bill is a Senate provision to cushion the financial impact on insurance companies from extra expensive payouts. Dayton insisted that lawmakers take a longer look at the reinsurance proposal, which is expected to be part of a second health insurance bill later in the session.

A controversial House provision to allow insurance companies to offer less expensive plans that cover fewer things as long as full-blown plans remain available was also stripped from the bill.

Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans said once the bill is passed and signed by the governor his agency will start getting the word out on the rebates and other details.

"We want everyone to sign up by Jan. 31, and get individual insurance if they qualify. So, we'll be doing a lot of outreach on that," he said.

Dayton sent a letter this week to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the new Trump administration to request an extension of the state's open enrollment deadline to Feb. 28. A previous request was denied by the outgoing Obama administration.