Bitter health insurance debate erupts in Minnesota House

Published 8:31 pm Wednesday, March 20, 2019

ST. PAUL — A bitter, partisan debate erupted on the Minnesota House floor Wednesday when Republicans tried to bring up a health care reinsurance bill that House Democrats oppose as a giveaway to the insurance industry.

Back in 2017, when Republicans controlled both chambers of the Legislature, they passed a $549 million reinsurance plan designed to hold down soaring premiums in the individual marketplace. A bill approved by the GOP-controlled Senate last week would re-extend the program three more years.

Rep. Greg Davids tried a procedural maneuver Wednesday to pull the Senate bill out of a House committee so that it could get a floor vote. He said reinsurance works and that reduced premiums by an average of 20 percent. His motion failed 45-79 along party lines, but only after nearly two hours of contentious debate that stood in contrast with the bipartisan tone that legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Tim Walz sounded at the beginning of the session.

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“This debate is not over,” the Preston Republican said just before the vote. He said he brought his motion up because the GOP minority was being shut out.

The new House Democratic majority backs Walz’s approach, which would give premium relief directly to Minnesotans who get insurance through the state-run MNsure exchange. While the state Commerce Department has acknowledged that reinsurance kept premiums 20 percent lower than they would have been, the governor wants to cut out the insurance company middlemen and give customers a direct 20 percent subsidy instead.

“You can either give the money to the insurance companies and hope they will pass it on to consumers, or you can give it to consumers right off the bat,” said Rep. Tina Liebling, a Rochester Democrat who chairs a key health and human services committee.

The debate turned personal at times. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt asked some freshman female legislators directly whether reducing health care costs was important to their constituents. The Republican from Crown said the governor’s plan would result in higher premiums compared with reinsurance, and would benefit only consumers who buy their insurance through MNsure, a program he called a failure.

“If that’s your plan, God help you and God help your constituents, because that’s not what they sent you here to do, and all the promises you made on the campaign trail will be broken,” Daudt said.

Liebling, whose committee defeated a GOP amendment to graft the Senate bill onto another bill Tuesday night, faulted Republicans for trying to bypass the committee process with such a confrontational approach.

“You can be really loud and get really angry and still not know what you’re talking about,” the Rochester Republican said. “Just because you repeat it over and over does not mean you understand what’s going on.”

Liebling also lamented that the protracted debate forced her to postpone a scheduled presentation by Walz administration officials on how to address one of the other big unresolved health care issues of the session — what to do about the state’s health care provider tax, which funds the MinnesotaCare health plan for the working poor but is due to expire at the end of the year. There’s wide Republican opposition to renewing it.