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Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake (center) and Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska (right) led the conference committee that passed a compromise health insurance premium relief bill Wednesday. The bill, which is set for Thursday House and Senate floor votes, adopts Gov. Mark Dayton’s 25 percent premium relief plan while retaining several GOP reforms, such as allowing for-profit insurers to do business in Minnesota. Senate Counsel Katie Cavanor is pictured at left. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake (center) and Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska (right) led the conference committee that passed a compromise health insurance premium relief bill Wednesday. The bill, which is set for Thursday House and Senate floor votes, adopts Gov. Mark Dayton’s 25 percent premium relief plan while retaining several GOP reforms, such as allowing for-profit insurers to do business in Minnesota. Senate Counsel Katie Cavanor is pictured at left. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Insurance relief package clears conference committee

In what a top administration official characterized as a workable compromise, a joint House-Senate conference committee Wednesday approved an insurance relief bill that leaves Gov. Mark Dayton’s 25 percent rebate plan and several key GOP market reforms intact.

Myron Frans, the Minnesota Management and Budget commissioner, said that after working on the bill for two days, the 10-member conference found a resolution that Dayton can live with. “It’s a good bill,” Frans said.

The bill now moves to both the Senate and House floors for further debate and final floor votes. The Senate is convenes at 11 a.m. Thursday, and the full House meets at 3:30 p.m. House Speaker Kurt Daudt has said he wants the bill laid on the governor’s desk for signing by Thursday.

The conference committee’s report retains some GOP reforms that Dayton and DFL legislators said were too complex or had not been fully vetted, and therefore should have been separated from the more immediate 25 percent rebate.

One of those, which Frans said still bothers Dayton, is a provision to allow for-profit insurance companies to enter and compete in Minnesota, which currently is dominated by non-profit health insurers. “We don’t know how that affects the nonprofits and what they do going forward,” Frans said.

Another remaining reform reduces so-called stop-loss attachment points, a move that Republicans say will make it easier for small businesses to offer more affordable plans. Stop-loss insurance protects self-insured employers against catastrophic claims that exceed pre-set limits.

This too is problematic, Frans said. “Not because it is not a good idea,” he said, “but because we don’t know if it is the right thing. We are concerned how it might affect the market.”

The Republicans gave up some of their favorite features, too. The bill emerging from conference committee contains no income verification provision, for instance. That was an element that, during debate, Republicans had insisted must be included. “Why would we give premium relief to millionaires?” Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, remarked at one point.

However, Republicans get some consolation on this front. Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said after the conference committee vote that the bill gives the Office of the Legislative Auditor special permission to access the MNsure system to look for double-dippers who apply both for the premium rebate and a federal tax credit.

“They are not eligible for this if they are getting the income tax credit,” Benson said.

Another controversial provision shot down in conference committee was the so-called “Drazkowski amendment.” Offered by Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, as “a cure for the regulatory disease,” it would have allowed insurers to omit any or all of 68 coverage areas mandated under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Dayton, during his Tuesday budget presentation, correctly predicted that language would not reach the House and Senate floors. “It won’t get through the conference committee,” he said. “Eliminating those requirements would send us back into the Dark Ages.”

Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, who won a spot on the conference committee as the lone Senate Democrat to vote for GOP premium relief bill, said Wednesday that she would not have backed the conference committee report had the Drazkowski language survived.

“It would have taken Minnesota backwards,” she said. “I’m glad this committee took it off the table.”

By adopting the governor’s plan to make rebate payments directly to insurers, the GOP’s favored option—issuing checks directly to consumers—falls to the wayside. That idea was blasted by DFLers who said it would have required the state to build a data hub from scratch capable of processing applications, issuing payments and verifying incomes.

Frans testified at various committees earlier that building the interface would cost up to $20 million, take a year and require state government to engage in new and intrusive forms of data collection.

By sending the $325 million relief package closer to final passage, lawmakers likely will avoid running up against the Jan. 31 end of open enrollment for buying 2017 health insurance. During floor debates and in committee meetings this month, lawmakers have worried that many Minnesotans have been waiting until after the Legislature acts to decide if they can afford to purchase insurance.

With the bill is set for likely final passage Thursday, Frans said, there is just enough time—about one week—for those Minnesotans to apply for and receive coverage.

“We will make sure that we hit as many people as we can to let them know that by Jan. 31 we need them to sign up,” Frans said.

Frans said that health plans have informed him that, once the law is in place, it could take a few months to implement refunds into their billing systems. The bill does not stipulate how they are to do it, but it will require insurers to make premium refunds retroactive to January.

“We will work with them on how to do that,” Frans said.

About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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