House panel votes to abandon MNsure, shift state to federal health exchange

Published 10:05 am Tuesday, March 17, 2015

ST. PAUL — The debate over the future of Minnesota’s state-operated health insurance exchange took an emotional turn Monday night as lawmakers weighed stories from one man who said his struggle to get coverage through the exchange contributed to his wife’s death, while others said MNsure saved their lives.

Kurt Daudt

Kurt Daudt

Those stories were a prelude to a Republican-led House panel approving a bill to abandon MNsure and instead move the state to the federal by 2017. Democrats objected that scrapping the exchange would hurt health care in Minnesota. The measure passed on a party-line vote, with all Democrats voting against it.

It’s just the latest — and the largest — of several proposals in the House to chart a new course for a program they say has been a failure.

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MNsure’s rocky rollout in year one and continued problems this year have built up momentum at the Legislature to chart a different course.  On Monday, Gov. Mark Dayton tried to buy more time.

The Democratic governor sent a letter to legislative leaders proposing a task force to study the future of Minnesota health care and MNsure, up to and including whether the state should abandon its exchange.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt said the time to act on MNsure is now and that the state can’t afford to wait until 2016 to hear back from a task force, as Dayton suggested.

Minnesota Republicans have put forward a handful of proposals to alter MNsure, seeking to put every chip possible on the bargaining table with Democrats who have largely stood firm against a wholesale repeal.

But among the handful of proposals to alter MNsure, Rep. Matt Dean’s bill to dissolve the exchange goes the farthest. It would only go into effect if the U.S. Supreme Court rules that subsidies in states that go through the federal exchange can continue. The court’s decision is expected later this spring.

House GOP members cited a story of real-life impact to make their case MNsure’s well-documented problems.

Some lawmakers wept as Charlie Dunker of Jackson wrapped up his story about his struggles signing up for MNsure as his wife’s breast cancer hit hard last year after a 2007 diagnosis. For months, the couple was uninsured as they fought with MNsure to finalize their enrollment, causing problems as they sought tests and appointments, he said.

“She was in Mayo from November to Jan. 9, when she died,” he said, pausing to pull out two photos of his wife, Gail — one a portrait, and the other of her lying in a hospital bed. “When MNsure was jerking our chain, that’s what happened. That’s why I’m here.”

In a statement, MNsure called Gail Dunker’s death tragic but said it does not discuss its enrollees’ private information.

Rep. Tina Liebling, a Rochester Democrat, said Dunker’s story doesn’t account for the “many, many other stories … where people have been helped by MNsure, have been able to buy insurance for the first time.”

Among them was Mary Einspahr, who told lawmakers MNsure “saved my life” from depression and substance abuse. She signed up for Medical Assistance through the exchange, she said.

Democrats have pointed to stories such as Einspahr’s and the improvements at MNsure, such as a more stable website and reduced wait center times, as proof that the exchange has found the right track.

Sen. Tony Lourey, a Kerrick Democrat who has suggested a series of oversight changes to the exchange, questioned whether moving to the federal exchange would be a positive change for Minnesota. He noted that the switch wouldn’t be free.

Dean is still awaiting a cost estimate but said it’s a necessary step.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that we should stop throwing good money after bad money,” The Dellwood Republican said in an interview.