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Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton says on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, that the state-subsidized MinnesotaCare health insurance program can operate through 2018, but it may face financial issues beyond that. Don Davis / Forum News Service

U.S. Senate health care deal could help Minnesota insurance programs

ST. PAUL — Two Minnesota health programs could be winners under a new federal health care proposal backed by the president.

The U.S. Senate plan, which so far lacks leaders' backing, would restore money to the government-subsidized MinnesotaCare health insurance program that serves 91,000 low-income people. It also would provide aid to nearly 170,000 Minnesotans who buy buy individual insurance policies because they are not covered by employee- or government-provided plans.

"It is a big step, but it is not the only step," U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said of the plan announced on Tuesday, Oct. 17, by two U.S. senators to change the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare.

The plan would restore money President Donald Trump withheld to help fund MinnesotaCare.

Minnesota Democrats and Republicans alike criticized Trump's action because it stopped funding already planned.

"It appears that this deal, which I believe is very promising, restores that funding, and I'm hopeful we will be able to come together in Congress and pass legislation to fix the ACA and help Minnesota families," U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said shortly after the deal was announced.

Before Alexander and Murray released their plan, Gov. Mark Dayton said Minnesota has enough money to fund MinnesotaCare through 2018, but beyond that the fund that finances it would be drained.

The agreement between Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, and Patty Murray, D-Washington, had not been approved by Republican leadership, which controls the Senate. And many conservatives complained it does not go far enough in gutting Obamacare.

It drew quick support from Trump, who called it "a short-term answer."

Alexander told reporters in Washington that the plan, "in plain English, means that we're keeping premiums from rising (in 2018) and lowering premiums in 2019. The two ways we would do that would be, one, we would give states more flexibility on variety of choices they can give to consumers and, two, to extend the cost reduction payments for two years."

The proposal would give Congress more time to draw up a comprehensive federal health care law.

Klobuchar said she worked with Alexander and Murray to make sure MinnCare money was in their deal.

"Over the past couple months I've participated in the bipartisan discussions held by Sens. Alexander and Murray on commonsense solutions to bring down costs, including a meeting with both Republican and Democratic governors, but we can and must do more to help middle-class families," she said, including her push to lower prescription drug prices.

Klobuchar said that if the new proposal passes Congress and is signed by Trump, states could recalculate 2018 insurance rates for individual policies, perhaps lowering them or maybe even giving rebates.

Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said on Oct. 2 as he announced insurance rates that they would not change in 2018, but that was before the Alexander-Murray plan.

Individual insurance policies go on sale Nov. 1. In most states, sales end on Dec. 15, but they go an extra month in Minnesota, either on the state-run website or at private insurance agencies.

At the same time federal officials this fall said they would withhold $286 million over two years in MinnCare funding, they agreed to send the state funds to bolster the sale of individual insurance policies. Dayton and legislative leaders were thankful for the individual market funds, but joined in criticizing the Trump administration for cutting MinnCare money.

State and federal governments share the MinnCare cost, with premiums from its low-income customers paying a small percentage.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.