Legislators focus on rising health insurance costs

Published 10:10 am Wednesday, January 4, 2017

ST. PAUL — Minnesota’s 2017 legislative session began Tuesday with plenty to do and lots to look at, as lawmakers returned to the newly renovated state Capitol intent on addressing rapidly rising health insurance premiums in the first two weeks of the session.

With a big agenda that also includes passing a new, two-year budget facing Republicans who control the entire Legislature after the GOP won back the Senate, Tuesday’s kickoff was mostly ceremonial, giving new lawmakers, veterans and members of the public time to admire the 111-year-old building after its $310 million renovation — and the occasional paint blotch or uninstalled water fountain. Though the bulk of the work is done, some minor work will continue throughout the summer, when a public opening ceremony is scheduled.

Kurt Daudt

Kurt Daudt

The 2017 session is the first since 2015 that all 201 lawmakers will meet inside the Capitol; the House continued meeting inside the construction site last year while the Senate took up temporary space inside a new adjacent office building. But lawmakers returned with a much different dynamic, as Republicans won a slim majority in the Senate and maintained their hold on the House to take on Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

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Dayton dispensed with the pomp-and-circumstance of Tuesday, pressing lawmakers to immediately approve financial assistance for Minnesota residents facing massive health insurance premium increases on the individual market this year.

It’s a familiar topic, as the rate hikes of up to 67 percent were at the heart of months of negotiations surrounding a special session that never materialized. Though it affects just the 100,000 or so residents who make too much income to qualify for federal subsidies, Dayton called on the Legislature to approve this week the premium rebates that would cut total monthly insurance costs by 25 percent.

While Dayton said he’ll propose his own broader health insurance tweaks later this month, he and Democratic allies said the Legislature can’t wait to approve the financial help.

“It is in no way perfect, but what it does is bring immediate help to people who really need it and buy us all time to try to figure out a longer-term solution,” said Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester.

Open enrollment ends Jan. 31. But even if premium rebates are approved and signed by Friday, shoppers likely wouldn’t see smaller bills until at least March — though insurance companies could reimburse customers for previous months.

But even passing the relief this week is a longshot, Republican legislative leaders said, citing the logistical hurdles of a Legislature that’s just getting running.

Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt said the House could approve the short-term rebates as soon as next week, leaving it open whether the Legislature would also cobble together some longer-term reforms to make the fragile individual market more stable. And with uncertainty at the federal level on how the incoming Donald Trump administration will handle President Barack Obama’s health law, Daudt said Minnesota lawmakers nevertheless need to act quickly to help those suffering from massive premium hikes.

Sen. Michelle Benson, a top Republican on health care issues, said the Legislature need to move quickly on the broader fixes such as creating a reinsurance program to help offset the costs from sick patients that have driven up premiums.

“If we wait for reforms, it’s going to get caught up in budget negotiations,” Benson said.

The governor’s urgency Tuesday is a preview of the busy year Minnesota lawmakers have ahead of them, including passing a $40 billion-plus two-year budget. Dayton also plans to unveil a package of public construction projects and a tax relief bill — both leftovers from 2016’s unfinished work.