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70% of Minnesotans want ability to buy into MinnesotaCare

A new public opinion poll shows that 70 percent of Minnesotans want the option to buy in to public health insurance programs like MinnesotaCare, compared to 11 percent who oppose it.

Minnesota Public Radio and the Star Tribune last week released the poll, which found overwhelming support for the idea across all ages, geographic regions, and partisan affiliation.

"It's a good idea. I think we ought to make it (MinnesotaCare) available to anybody who wants to use it," said State Sen. Tony Lourey, a DFLer who represents Pine, Carlton and Kanabec counties, and was a key player in pushing for Gov. Mark Dayton's unsuccessful MinnesotaCare buy-in proposal.

Lourey was impressed that 70 percent of Minnesotans want the option to buy into MinnesotaCare, and says that number should make candidates from all parties sit up and take notice.

After a $13 million start-up cost, the MinnesotaCare buy-in would pay for itself through premiums. And those premiums (estimated at $469 per person per month in 2018) would be a lot less expensive than many people pay now. It would also be an affordable way for those without health insurance to get coverage, he said.

MinnesotaCare, a healthcare program for uninsured working Minnesotans, should not be confused with MNsure, which is Minnesota's online health insurance marketplace.

But if people could buy-in to MinnesotaCare, they would still be eligible for federal tax credits through MNsure, which saved people an average of $7,000 on their health insurance premiums last year.

And MinnesotaCare is well-regarded and well-run. It operates on just 3 percent overhead, which helps keep premiums low, Lourey said.

It also has a strong network of physicians and care providers across the state, giving people a real option to choose and keep their own doctor.

The buy-in details are quite flexible, he added, but "the core component is the public would be using the tremendous buying power we have, providing healthcare for a million people," who are already in the MinnesotaCare and Medical Assistance programs.

MinnesotaCare would continue to provide subsidized premiums for the 89,000 people who use it now, that wouldn't change, but the new MinnesotaCare Buy-In program would be a health insurance policy just like those offered by commercial health plans.

The premiums paid by "MinnesotaCare Buy-In" enrollees would pay for the cost of their policies, just like any other. The plan would require no additional ongoing costs for Minnesota taxpayers, Lourey said.

Under Dayton's plan, at least, MinnesotaCare Buy-In would reimburse doctors and hospitals at the same rate as Medicare enrollees, giving a financial shot in the arm to small, often rural practices. And it would reduce uncompensated care (which cost Minnesota hospitals $580 million in 2016) by getting more people insured.

The state has been heading in the wrong direction lately in that regard: After reaching a historic low of 4.3 percent in 2016, Minnesota's uninsured rate increased to 6.3 percent last year — leaving nearly 350,000 Minnesotans without health coverage.

Lourey said he has been working with Republicans on the plan, and is willing to address concerns about private insurers being left out of the marketplace. The state could "leave a legitimate market space for private insurers competing (with MinnesotaCare buy-in)," he said, although private insurers haven't exactly been been rushing in to compete the past few years. "Don't try to make it about the market spaces you're not even going to play in," he said.

Candidates from both parties have been hearing an earful on the campaign trail about healthcare.

"It's a huge burden on families," Lourey said. "This would provide significantly lower premiums than what is available on the private market today."

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