Minnesotans bearing the brunt of health insurance premium spikes are making hard calculations about their lives and personal budgets as the state’s political leaders continued to spar Tuesday over how best to deliver financial relief.

In Madison, Minn., a longtime bakery owner is trying to sell the business — and raising the price of doughnuts and decorated cakes in the meantime. In Mendota Heights, a dental assistant near the end of her career is pulling money from her retirement savings account to cover insurance bills. In Millville, a married pair of cancer survivors wonder if more years of rising rates could make them lose a dairy farm they spent more than 30 years building.

These are just a few of the Minnesotans thrust into the State Capitol limelight during the first weeks of the new legislative session: the approximately 123,000 people who buy insurance on the state’s individual market, don’t qualify for government subsidies, and have seen insurance bills rise by 50 percent or more.

Their stories have become fodder for political speeches and news conferences. On Tuesday, Gov. Mark Dayton held a news conference urging the Legislature’s Republican majority to approve his proposal of $313 million in premium rebates directly distributed by insurance companies.

“With 14 days left until the end of the open enrollment period, people need to know if they can afford insurance,” Dayton said. Appearing with him were several insurance customers who’d be eligible for rebates, including Shari Sexton, one of the dairy farmers from Millville.

Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, fired back in a letter by noting that House DFLers slowed down the Republican rebate proposal in the first days of session: “It’s simple: We need relief, continued access to lifesaving care, and key first steps to start fixing the individual market for next year.”

DFLers and Republicans alike cast the premium spikes as an emergency, but the push to get a relief package through has been littered with these partisan pitfalls.

“I think there’s some political jockeying going on, and I don’t appreciate being used as a pawn,” said Sheryl Hogg, an interpreter from Zimmerman whose monthly premiums rose this year from $500 to $850, and has a $3,800 deductible for her individual plan.

Last week, the Senate passed a GOP-sponsored $450 million health care bill, with $300 million in premium rebates ranging from 20 to 30 percent. The House is expected to vote on its own bill Thursday.

Whether the Legislature’s Republican majorities send the DFL governor a bill he’s willing to sign is not yet certain. Dayton and DFL allies have argued the GOP proposal would be too costly to implement and would delay the distribution of premium rebates by nearly a year. The Senate proposal also contains broader health insurance policy changes that Dayton says need to be examined more thoroughly.

In floor debates, legislators from both parties shared stories of those affected by premium hikes — usually to prove a partisan point. Outside the Capitol, insurance customers have less certainty.

Lynda Bergeson, a 62-year-old dental assistant from Mendota Heights, paid $660 a month last year for her individual plan. When this year began, with no fix in sight, Bergeson’s premiums rose to $940 per month. She made a difficult decision to start dipping into her retirement account.

“Which I really hadn’t planned to do until I was older,” Bergeson said.

Dayton’s proposal would reduce her monthly bill by about $235, Bergeson believes, and she’s hoping that’s what lawmakers pass — “sooner, rather than later,” she said.

Hogg, 57, feels squeezed — she makes too much as an interpreter to get a subsidy, but health insurance consumes about 20 percent of her income. She’d work more to try to even out her budget, but caring for her elderly mother is a major time commitment.

Instead, Hogg is spending money she’d planned to put in her health savings account, and can no longer afford to buy disability insurance. She, too, wants the quick relief intended by Dayton’s plan, and said she’s frustrated with the alternative championed by House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, her own state representative.

Others weren’t so sure. Janelle Kennedy, owner of Kennedy’s Bakery in Madison, pays just over $2,000 per month for herself, her husband and one child, with a $13,000 deductible.

Kennedy said premium relief would be a big help, but probably a temporary solution. She’s getting ready to raise prices and would sell her bakery if she finds a taker.

“If this does not get corrected and we are forced to purchase health care or we pay penalties, this kind of small business is going to go away,” Kennedy said.

Last year, Sheri and Vince Sexton paid $1,585 a month to insure themselves and a college-age son. This year, they found a cheaper plan for their son only to see their own premiums shoot up: a monthly bill of about $2,000, and a deductible of $6,500 per family member and $13,000 for the family collectively.

Going without insurance is not an option for these 50-something dairy farmers from Millville, in southeast Minnesota. Last year, Sheri was diagnosed with breast cancer, and paid out her full deductible.

Sheri appreciates the Affordable Care Act provision that guarantees neither she nor her husband, who had leukemia 10 years ago, can be denied coverage. She, too, said short-term premium help would be welcome but not enough to ease this threat to the family’s livelihood.

“It is frustrating and I feel the general public doesn’t realize what us as farmers, or all self-employed people, pay for health care,” she said.

 

Star Tribune staff writer J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this story.