Health insurance exchange signed into law

by T.W. Budig

ECM Capitol reporter

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton touched pen to paper and made history.

Flanked by a cadre of beaming Democrats, Dayton signed into law Wednesday, March 20, legislation creating a state-operated health insurance exchange.

“This is going to serve the people of Minnesota,” Dayton said of MNSURE, the newly named exchange expected to serve more than 1 million Minnesotans.

“We’re far better off doing it our own way,” the governor said of the state creating its own exchange rather than accepting a federally created one. Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government will set up an exchange in any state that doesn’t create one.

Exchange bill authors Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, and Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, were exuberant over their legislation becoming law.

“This is the most significant reform of health insurance we’ve seen in 50 years,” Atkins said.

Lourey, who like Atkins, nursed his legislation through some nine legislative hearings, spoke of emotions.

“It was actually pretty emotional seeing you sign that bill,” Lourey said to Dayton. After signing the legislation, Dayton stood and handed Lourey the pen.

The bill signed into law creates a seven-member board to oversee the exchange, described as a virtual marketplace where those needing insurance can shop online, compare and buy.

Although the Senate in its bill looked to tobacco dollars to fund the exchange, the legislation emerged from conference committee having the funding mechanism favored by the House whereby a percentage of insurance premiums are tapped for dollars.

Under the exchange waiver granted the state by the federal government, lawmakers had to speedily pass exchange legislation this session.

The governor is expected to appoint the exchange board by the end of April — Dayton currently has no one in mind for the open slots, he said.

Under the law, the commissioner of human services will be one of the seven serving on the board.

“I’ll be judged by the quality of the appointments I make,” Dayton said.

While Dayton expressed regret over the perceived politicalization of the exchange and Obamacare — he called the politics “ugly” — the partisan divide was evident at the bill signing.

No Republicans stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Democrats.

Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who served on the exchange conference committee, said he felt forlorn seeing the House and Senate Democrats serving on the conference committee entering the room together.

Republicans question the cost of the exchange, formation of the board and conflict of interest provisions, and they argue the exchange will have a deadening effect on the insurance marketplace.

Advocates argue the exchange will save Minnesotans $1 billion by 2016, but Republicans argue an influx of federal funding can’t be considered savings.

Dayton countered that Republicans have been invited to be part of the exchange development process from the start.

A public outreach campaign for the exchange is planned for May, with system testing and network training taking place over the summer.

The exchange call center is expected to open in September, with enrollment beginning a month later.

Plan coverage will start Jan. 1, 2014.

Even if political control at the State Capitol changes — a Democrat now sits in the Governor’s Office and Democrats control the Legislature — the fact that board members serve staggered terms and funding is secure makes it less likely the exchange could be dramatically changed quickly, Lourey said.