Dayton asks for earlier release of MNsure policy rates
ST. PAUL -- Long before Minnesotans go to the polls in November, they should have a good idea of what health insurance premiums will look like for next year.
Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday called for the release of rates by about Oct. 1, so long as the state Commerce Department has enough time to review and approve rate filings from insurance companies.
Officials had planned to release the rates Nov. 15, more than a week after the fall election. But Republicans argued that an earlier release would help consumers by allowing more time to consider options.
Republicans also questioned whether the original release date was motivated by politics.
“Making the rate information public before (Nov. 15) would provide families and businesses additional time and information to help them make informed decisions regarding their health coverage options in 2015,” Dayton wrote in a letter to the MNsure Legislative Oversight Committee, which met Tuesday at the Capitol.
“I certainly think it’s a good idea today, (and) thought it was a good idea back in March and April,” Rep. Tara Mack, R-Apple Valley, said during the committee meeting.
DFLers pushed to create MNsure last year as a way of implementing the federal Affordable Care Act, which requires almost all Americans to have health insurance. The exchange features a website where people can buy commercial coverage and learn whether they qualify for federal subsidies or government health insurance programs.
Republicans have seized on operational problems at MNsure since the launch of the health exchange website, while Democratic-Farmer-Labor legislators have touted low premiums for commercial policies sold through MNsure.
It’s too early to say what premiums will look like for 2015, but there’s reason to think they’ll increase, said Eileen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Council of Health Plans.
For starters, the share of premiums that MNsure will withhold to fund operations grows from 1.5 percent to 3.5 percent, Smith said, adding that insurance companies also face extra taxes next year to fund the federal health law. The taxes create upward pressure on premium prices, she said.
Also next year, Minnesota will close its high-risk pool for people with expensive health problems. The transition of those patients into the health exchange market also could push up premiums, Smith said.
In addition, she said, medical cost trends are rising slightly. In May, Julie Brunner, the trade group’s executive director, said she doubted the state Commerce Department would approve double-digit rate increases.
“Their job is to keep rates as low as possible,” Smith said. “We have to see what they do with the plans.”
Insurance companies have filed initial proposed 2015 rates, but that’s simply the beginning of the process, said Marcus Merz, chief executive officer of PreferredOne. Merz said he could not discuss his company’s filings, but agreed there are reasons to think premiums will rise.
During the first year of the exchange, a larger number of people than expected left the state’s high-risk pool, Merz said. In addition, a surprisingly large share of the market bought top-of-the-line policies, suggesting they have health conditions that require many services.
Both factors mean insurers might have aimed too low in setting 2014 premiums, Merz said. So, adjusted higher premiums could be on tap.
“The key factor is really the illness burden that the new members brought into the pool,” Merz said.
More than half of those who have bought commercial coverage through MNsure selected PreferredOne, which offered the lowest premiums in much of the state.
Insurers filing 2015 rates are doing so based on their experience from the first few months of this year, said Alycia Riedl, immediate past president of the Minnesota Association of Health Underwriters.
There’s evidence to suggest that insurers saw a lot of claims during those months, Riedl said, and the experience likely would prompt carriers to increase premiums.
“At this point, it’s all people making their best guesses,” Riedl said. “I’m hearing it wouldn’t be surprising to see average increases somewhere in the 10 to 12 percent range.”
But it’s also possible, she said, that some of the insurance companies that had high prices in 2014 might have room to offer more affordable premiums for next year to win new customers.
During Tuesday’s meeting of the MNsure Legislative Oversight Committee, Commerce Department officials said they expected to have sufficient time to review and approve rates by Oct. 1.
“I do believe that we have enough time to complete the process,” said Tim Vande Hey, a deputy commissioner.
Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, encouraged Commerce Department officials to present premium data this fall in ways that allow for easy comparisons with current rates. Atkins added: “I also want to compare against Wisconsin, which has 88 percent higher rates than we do.”
While Republicans applauded plans for the Oct. 1 release, Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, suggested the Dayton administration wouldn’t have to struggle to get the job done.
“MNsure operationally needed the rates much earlier than Nov. 15,” Benson said during the committee meeting. “I think we’re going to get the public information that MNsure would have had anyway.”
During the committee meeting, Atkins and Benson offered different takes on the success of MNsure thus far.
Atkins joined other DFLers in applauding a significant reduction this year in the number of state residents lacking health insurance. He predicted further improvement in 2015, with planned improvements in the MNsure website.
“Frankly, the roll-out of MNsure was kind of a stumbling effort,” he said. “It made it difficult for some folks to enroll.”
But Benson and other Republicans questioned whether the decline in the state’s uninsured rate should be attributed to MNsure. Benson suggested the real driver was an expansion of the state-federal Medicaid program.
“What we really have to analyze is the value that MNsure added,” Benson said.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.