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MNsure Executive Allison O'Toole. Don Davis / Forum News Service

MNSure CEO sys reinsurance is 'short-term fix'

BRAINERD, Minn. — MNSure CEO Allison O'Toole offered up solutions Monday, Oct. 9, to help make sure health insurance premiums stay flat.

O'Toole is traveling the state, talking to Minnesota media outlets ahead of the open enrollment period starting Nov. 1.

She said there are three crucial tips for people looking to use the MNsure online exchange this fall. They should make sure they know their password and username (one of the most popular reasons to call MNSure is to reset passwords), update their account if they've changed things like their address or income level, and schedule an appointment with an assister—MNSure navigators and brokers that can help users understand how to use the website and enroll in plans.

O'Toole also explained how two government aid programs help tamp down the amount of money Minnesotans pay for their insurance. Most people get their health insurance either from their employer or from the government directly. Fewer than 4 percent in the state pay for their insurance on the individual market—for example, farmers and self-employed workers. But their rates shot up enough in recent years to cause a crisis that spurred state government to act.

The Legislature put in a 25 percent discount for the 2017 insurance season, which helped about 112,000 people pay an average of $136 a month less this year. Lawmakers also instituted a "reinsurance" program, in which the state insures insurance companies against the risk of getting high-cost policyholders.

O'Toole said both programs have expiration dates. The 25 percent discount isn't available this year, and the reinsurance program is only guaranteed funding for a total of two years. The reinsurance program kept most of next year's premiums flat—that is, about 20 percent less from what they otherwise would have gone up to, O'Toole said.

"The reinsurance program is a really good step forward for (the state)," she said.

The 25 percent discount also helped enrollees "take the edge off," O'Toole said.

Although she encouraged MNSure customers to contact their legislators, the best thing for them to do now is prepare for this year's enrollment period, she said.

O'Toole said she traveled to Washington D.C., to advocate for a reinsurance program similar to Minnesota's, but on the federal level funded by federal dollars.

"Minnesota's law, I view it as a very short-term fix to give lawmakers time for that bigger conversation about how to stabilize the market in the longer term," she said.

"My goal is to make sure that it's part of the conversation," O'Toole said.

She said there appears to be bipartisan cooperation on health insurance between U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., who serve together on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

"The first steps may be small, but let's keep going," O'Toole said.

But she was clear-eyed on what the future will likely hold.

"My gut (feeling) is that the first step will not include a federal reinsurance program," O'Toole said. "I hope it does in the future, but we have ours for two years, and hopefully that buys us some time to get to some longer-term solutions at the federal level."

As another possible solution, she listed Gov. Mark Dayton's idea of a MinnesotaCare buy-in, whereby people on the individual market buy in to a government health insurance program.The Dayton administration asserts those who buy in would get more options and lower prices than if they tried the commercial market. Users would buy in, so taxpayer dollars wouldn't directly subsidize them. Private insurers may or may not offer coverage depending on which part of Minnesota a policyholder lives in, but MinnesotaCare is much more broadly available.