By Jennifer Brooks and Jim Ragsdale

MNsure, Minnesota’s new online health insurance marketplace, boasts some of the lowest coverage rates of any health exchange in the country, according to a new federal report.

Gov. Mark Dayton trumpeted the news Wednesday, happy to have some good news to share about MNsure after several weeks of glitches and errors at the fledgling agency. MNsure is set to begin enrolling its first customers next Tuesday, Oct. 1.

“Minnesota has the lowest rates, the lowest insurance rates of any state in the nation – the lowest!” Dayton told the told the crowd at the AFL-CIO’s Minnesota State Retiree Council. “That is something to be incredibly proud of.”

Starting next year, all Americans will be required to have health insurance and health insurance exchanges are a key part of the Obama administration’s effort to make shopping for coverage simple and relatively affordable. Critics fear that the exchanges will simply drive up the cost of insurance for everyone.

A report released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows that the average rate of a plan through Minnesota’s state-based MNsure system are lower than other state-run exchanges or  in the 36 states with health insurance marketplaces operated by the federal government.

“There’s plenty of credit to go around. I’m not claiming credit,” Dayton said, citing state officials, the health plans and workers who have scrambled to put the complex MNsure system together in the six short months since it was signed into law. “We should be celebrating the fact … that employees and employers, especially small business employers, can get the lowest rates of any state in the nation for the health care for the people who work for them.”

Republican lawmakers were unimpressed by the rate announcement. MNsure rates will vary in different parts of the state, with the highest rates in the southeast corner that includes the home district of Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston.

"As long as Minnesotans can't purchase health insurance across state lines, today's 'announcement' means very little," Davids said in a statement. "Minnesotans will still be forced to pay more for fewer options under Democrats' insurance exchange than they do in the private market here in Minnesota. Hardworking Minnesota families don't need more misleading information from Governor Dayton and Democratic legislators about the cost of their new state agency."

But Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, was in the mood to celebrate. Atkins, the chairman of the Commerce and Consumer Protection Finance and Policy Committee, was the House sponsor of the bill that created MNsure.

MNsure will allow individuals and small businesses to log on and shop around for health coverage, the same way they visit a travel site to find the best rates on plane fares or hotel rooms.

The cheapest coverage they’ll be able to find on MNsure next year starts at $144 a month – before any tax breaks or subsidies that may offset the cost for many MNsure shoppers. The national average for a bronze plan is $249 a month. MNsure will also offer “silver” and “gold” plans, both plans starting at $192 a month.

“Now Minnesotans will not only have the best health care in the nation, they will also have the lowest cost in the nation,” Atkins said in a statement.  “Our Minnesota-based solution with strong competition and strong oversight is already working for Minnesotans.”

By contrast, Atkins noted, in Iowa – which opted for a federally-run health exchange, will offer bronze plans starting at $212 a month.

“Come to Minnesota for the better economy, stay for the more affordable health care – that’s what we should put on a billboard at the Wisconsin border,” Atkins said.. “Minnesota’s thriving economy has been outpacing our neighboring states and this good news helps us widen the lead.”

MNsure’s six-month enrollment period begins Oct. 1. Coverage begins Jan. 1, 2014. Eventually, as many as one out of every five Minnesotans -- 1.3 million people -- could buy insurance through MNsure.

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