After three years of debate over whether the Affordable Care Act will live up to its name, it’s time for Minnesotans to put aside political talking points and crunch some actual numbers to figure out whether the controversial law will yield good deals on health insurance for those who don’t have coverage and those who buy it on their own.

A noon news conference at the State Capitol today will mark a historic moment in the 2010 federal health reform law’s rollout in Minnesota. Officials from the state departments of health and commerce will release key information about the plans consumers can choose beginning Oct. 1 on the MNsure website.

MNsure is the name of Minnesota’s insurance exchange — the online marketplaces that are a cornerstone of the ACA. The site, like other states’ exchanges, is slated to launch at the beginning of next month.

Among the details to be released today: cost information for coverage, as well as which health insurers will compete on the exchange for consumers’ and small employers’ business.

Information about provider networks available through plans will also be made available. This is an important consideration. Steering consumers to doctors, clinics and hospitals that provide high-quality care at a lower cost is a strategy likely to be relied on by plans sold on the exchange as well as those plans sold outside of it to keep premium prices down. Consumers wading through plan offerings will want to make sure that the coverage they pick includes providers they currently use or would be comfortable using.

State officials deserve credit for making information about rates, insurers and networks available about a month before the original release date. With the MNsure call center now up and running, Minnesotans who qualify to buy on the exchange should start weighing available information and determine what will work best for them and their families in 2014. The majority of Minnesotans — generally those who get coverage through large employers or through Medicare, the federal government’s senior health program — won’t need to use MNsure.

Minnesotans relying on MNsure should put a priority on finding out whether they qualify for financial assistance newly available through the ACA. Tax credits available in advance and paid directly to insurers (no need to wait for a refund) may be available to people making up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level to help pay monthly premiums. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation report suggests that about half of those buying insurance on their own nationally will be eligible for this help, with eligible families receiving an average of $462 a month.

Assistance for coverage cost-­sharing, such as copays or deductibles, may also be available for those meeting income guidelines. Or, MNsure users may find that they are eligible for even more affordable public medical assistance programs.

The availability of this assistance is a key reason why Minnesotans need to drill down into the information released today and be skeptical about any “rate shock” claims made by Obamacare critics.

Rates that initially seem high may well turn out to be more affordable once subsidies, other assistance or lower cost-sharing factors in. Comparing costs with coverage from previous years is also difficult, since plans on the exchange may provide better benefits or lower deductibles, for example, than plans previously purchased on the individual market.

While people who want to buy coverage outside the exchange can still do so, subsidies to help buy premiums are available only through MNsure. That’s a good thing to keep in mind in the aftermath of today’s release of rate information.

Obamacare critics are already trying to steer people away from MNsure. Keith Downey, chair of the state Republican Party, tweeted on Tuesday that better deals are available on Consumers who check out that alternative should be aware that the website has been sharply criticized nationally for “teaser rates” that look attractive but that, in reality, few consumers qualify for. Subsidies to help buy coverage are also not available through this site.

Not everyone will find a good deal on MNsure. Minnesotans, however, need to do the math, not accept others’ politically motivated judgments, to figure out how they will fare in this new marketplace.


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