Organizers say that more than 1,700 people enrolled in coverage from two new agricultural cooperative health plans during recently completed open enrollment periods for the Minnesota program.
Starting in 2018, the health plans are an alternative to the state's troubled individual market, where farmers are among the roughly 166,000 people who have seen steep premium hikes since major changes came to coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act.
More than 1,000 people are enrolled in coverage from 40 Square Cooperative Solutions, according to a spokeswoman from the St. Paul-based group. Arden Hills-based Land O'Lakes said Monday that more than 700 people were obtaining coverage through its new health plan.
"We feel it's a very good starting point for us," said Char Vrieze, the project manager at 40 Square.
Critics said the new co-op plans could damage the individual market further if they pull healthy people from the risk pool where most self-employed people and those who don't get coverage from an employer buy health insurance.
But Lynn Blewett, a health policy researcher at the University of Minnesota, said Monday: "I think these numbers suggest a relatively small impact on the overall individual market."
She said a key question is whether those who signed up for the new farmer plans previously lacked health insurance, or switched coverage from an individual or employer health plan. Another question, she said, is whether the new plans drew an unusually healthy group of customers.
40 Square charges applicants different rates depending on the responses they provide to questions about their health history. Critics questioned whether the group would wind up "cherry-picking" customers by offering low rates to healthy enrollees, while effectively pushing those with costly health problems to other markets by charging higher premiums.
At the same time, both 40 Square and a new cooperative health plan from Land O'Lakes offered a much broader network of doctors and hospitals. Those networks might have been particularly attractive to people with health problems.
Land O'Lakes asked applicants questions about their health status, but didn't charge different premiums based on the answers.
"In the pilot year … 318 farmers enrolled, resulting in more than 700 individuals (farmers and their family members) gaining health care coverage under the program," a spokeswoman for Land O'Lakes said in a statement on Monday. "We are pleased with these results."
Minnesota lawmakers created the new coverage from agricultural co-ops in early 2017 legislation on the individual insurance market. Thematically, the co-op health plans sound similar to a push by the Trump Administration for "association health plans."
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Labor proposed rules for the health plans, which might make coverage "more affordable for thousands of small businesses and sole proprietors," the government said in a statement.
Officials with both Land O'Lakes and 40 Square say they're looking at how the new rules might apply to their health plans.