Uncertainty from feds clouds state health care costs

Gov. Mark Dayton and Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper spoke to reporters on Wednesday, Sept. 20. Tim Pugmire | MPR News


updated 3:15 p.m.

Gov. Mark Dayton said Wednesday that his inability to reach federal Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price on the phone to talk about health care is unlike anything he's ever experienced.

Minnesota lawmakers passed a $542 million financial safety net for insurance companies last session that was aimed at stabilizing the state’s individual health insurance market. But the plan, known as reinsurance, is dependent on the federal government's permission in the form of a waiver that has not yet been approved. And Dayton said he's not getting any answers.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

“I can’t even get the secretary of health and human services on the telephone. I can’t even get a phone number to call him to raise the issue.”

About 170,000 Minnesotans buy insurance on the individual market, and Dayton stressed that timing is critical. Without the waiver, he said, state officials will post 2018 premium costs early next month ahead of open enrollment that are 20-percent higher than they would be with the reinsurance program.

Dayton said that’s a huge difference for people already struggling to afford coverage.

“We don’t want to scare people about what might happen in the future. But we can’t avoid that reality any longer. It’s just upon us.”

Dayton is also disturbed by the prospect of losing $369 million in federal funds for MinnesotaCare, a basic health care program that serves the working poor. He said federal officials notified his office just last week that the cut would be a consequence of approving the reinsurance program.

“These are real people’s lives that they’re threatening by what they’re doing and not doing.”

Dayton’s human services commissioner, Emily Piper, explained that 100,000 MinnesotaCare enrollees should be safe until 2019, because the program has sufficient reserves. But Piper is still concerned about the cut.

“We’re talking about health care for people all across Minnesota, particularly in greater Minnesota, the long-term financing and sustainability of that program, being put in jeopardy as a result of the federal government cutting our sustainability options for that program going forward,” she said.

The concern about federal funding for Minnesota health programs is likely to grow if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act. The end of next week is looming as a deadline for the latest effort in the U.S. Senate to repeal Obamacare. One estimate says Minnesota could lose $8 billion dollars in federal funding over the next 10 years if that Senate bill were to become law.

A key Republican state lawmaker is taking a wait-and-see approach to the waiver issue.

“I don’t think panic is a very good policy position,” said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, the chair of the Senate health and human services finance committee, said she too has concerns about the delay.

Bensen added that she thinks the waiver will come soon. She said she wants to see something official and in writing from the feds before reacting.

“Let’s wait for the letter. Let’s look at the funding streams we have and the stability of our insurance market and go from there.”

Late in the day Republican committee chairs in the Minnesota House and Senate, including Benson, sent a letter to the secretaries of Health & Human Services and the Treasury requesting immediate approval of the waiver.