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Compromise reached to provide health insurance premium relief in Minnesota

ST. PAUL—Minnesota lawmakers are about to approve relief for 120,000 Minnesotans facing skyrocketing health insurance premiums.

Both chambers of the state Legislature are likely to pass the relief bill Thursday, after a joint committee of lawmakers approved a compromise Wednesday afternoon.

Gov. Mark Dayton says he likely would sign it into law "as soon as I get my hands on the bill."

"Based on what I know, based on what I was told last night, it's a bill I'll sign," Dayton said Wednesday morning. "We've got to get the premium relief ... to people who need it."

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said she "cannot wait for that moment when Minnesotans can be certain they're getting relief."

Once passed, the deal will provide 25 percent discounts to Minnesotans who buy their health insurance on the individual marketplace and earn too much money to qualify for existing federal subsidies. In addition it will help some Minnesotans undergoing treatment for serious conditions keep their doctors even if their network is changing.

The full measure will cost Minnesota taxpayers around $325 million, taken from the state's budget reserves.

It took months for Minnesota leaders to get this close to a deal, even though both parties agreed the state should provide the relief. But they disagreed about how that relief should be administered, and whether immediate should be bundled with long-term reform.

Had the deadlock continued much longer, it could have had major consequences. The open enrollment period for 2017 insurance ends Jan. 31, and lawmakers want Minnesotans to be able to make an insurance purchase knowing whether they'll have subsidies for the year.

"We have a lot of people who are sort of holding their breath trying to figure out if they can afford this," said Benson. With relief on the verge of passage, she said, they now "need to go buy insurance" before Jan. 31.

There's a chance Minnesotans could get more time to buy insurance. Though then-President Barack Obama's administration denied Minnesota's request to extend the open enrollment period past Jan. 31, Dayton has made the same request of President Donald Trump's administration. With Trump now ordering the federal government to give states flexibility in interpreting the Affordable Care Act, it's possible this second request could be granted.

Thursday's likely passage of the bill doesn't mean Minnesotans will get immediate relief. It will take six to eight weeks of work for insurers to build computer systems to process the relief. Eventually it will show up as discounts on subscribers' insurance bills, likely on April or May bills. The measure requires plans to implement the relief by April 30.

The relief will be applied retroactively for the first few months of the year.

Insurers will be reimbursed by the state for the discounts they provide to eligible Minnesotans.

BILL IS A COMPROMISE

The compromise includes some elements Dayton wanted and others pushed by Republicans:

• Republicans agreed to Dayton's plan to have health plans administer the aid as part of their normal invoices, instead of requiring the state to send out checks.

• Dayton agreed to Republican calls to include several 2018-focused reforms in the bill, including allowing for-profit insurers into the individual market and letting farmers join together in co-ops to purchase insurance as groups.

• Several particularly controversial provisions were dropped, including an amendment adopted by House Republicans Thursday allowing people to buy plans without certain state-mandated benefits. Lawmakers also agreed to put off a market-stabilization plan called "reinsurance" for a few weeks so the proposal could receive more work.

Hoppe said the basic outline of the deal was struck last week.

"Last Wednesday the legislative leadership had breakfast with the governor," Hoppe said. "The governor and the leaders essentially agreed to a framework. The rest of it has been filling in the blank spaces."

BIPARTISAN SUPPORT LIKELY

Industry representatives and DFL lawmakers did object to some details of how health market reforms were structured. But Republican lawmakers forged forward instead of delaying the measure further or striking certain provisions from the bill.

"There will probably be mistakes we find in this, but we've got to rock and roll anyway," said Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood. "We do need to send a message that (reform) is just as important as the premium right now."

Democrats are likely to come on board after a final round of amendments were adopted Wednesday, especially since they'll have the chance to revise or fix provisions in the relief bill later this legislative session.

"We still have some things in this bill I'm not 100 percent in agreement with, but that's the spirit of compromise," said Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina. "We're here today to do what the people of Minnesota want us to do, which is get the relief they need today."

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