Minnesotans can now test-drive competing proposals for the state's new online health insurance marketplace. Those who come to kick the tires will wonder why these easy-to-use shopping sites have generated so much controversy.

The online marketplaces, known as "health exchanges," are a critical component of 2010's federal health reform law.

States are required to launch exchanges by 2014, and face a key deadline soon. Without significant progress by Jan. 1, federal officials may step in with a one-size-fits-all exchange.

That's not likely to happen in Minnesota because of the hard work done by Gov. Mark Dayton's administration.

Officials plowed ahead last year after the Republican-controlled Legislature's high-profile failure to pass legislation authorizing the exchange. Inaction on it was seen as a blow against "Obamacare."

Minnesota's progress can be seen in the competing online demonstrations -- now available for public review -- from companies such as Bloomington-based Ceridian.

The sites are consumer-friendly and navigable for many people by instinct. It's similar to using Travelocity or other online tools to make benefit choices during open enrollment.

More than 1 million Minnesotans are expected to use the exchange after it's operational two years from now. Minnesota's political leadership owes it to all who will rely on the exchange -- mostly individual buyers and small businesses at first -- to make sure it's done right.

Republican lawmakers don't just need to pass authorizing legislation, although that should be a top priority. They also need to recognize that Minnesotans who review the online demos will quickly realize this is a good idea.

Exchanges can harness technology and competition to give consumers a better deal.

If done right, a Minnesota exchange could also streamline the eligibility process for those getting subsidies to buy health insurance or qualify for other government services.

Exchanges are about finding efficiencies and reducing red tape -- not vice versa. State Republicans should want in on this instead of getting left behind.

Minnesota will be best served by a collaboration between Democrats and Republicans. Key questions remain about minimum benefit levels. Details have yet to be worked out on services and options for small employers.

There is work yet to do on risk adjustment, outreach and quality comparison tools.

Republicans should be on the front lines, not the sidelines. Comments this week from Republican Rep. Steve Gottwalt, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Reform Committee, suggest a welcome emphasis this session on pragmatism.

Gottwalt said he's hopeful exchange legislation will pass. He said lawmakers are getting better information about the exchange's value and their responsibility for shaping it.

"My challenge to those who are really opposed to the exchange is to come up with a better idea," Gottwalt said Wednesday.

Dayton administration officials have put so much effort into this project -- which now has nine full-time employees -- that they may not sincerely welcome the GOP's input. That would be a mistake.

The state's exchange advisory task force, which met this week, is also not a substitute for collaboration with the GOP.

Serious teamwork is needed to build the best exchange for Minnesota. There's still an opportunity to make that happen.


Readers, what do you think? To offer an opinion considered for publication as a letter to the editor, please fill out this form. Follow us on Twitter @StribOpinion and Facebook at facebook.com/StribOpinion.