DFL senators asked Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday to call a special legislative session to provide relief to Minnesotans socked with soaring health insurance premiums — and they want to convene before the Nov. 8 election.
Dayton, who is empowered to call the Legislature back to St. Paul, declined to comment Thursday, but he said earlier this week that he had no plans to call a special session before the election. He said convening a special session this close to a critical election would be “mayhem.”
But Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, of Cook, said the DFL governor was open to the idea during a conversation Thursday. Dayton has called a 10:30 a.m. news conference Friday and the topic is nearly certain to come up.
The special session idea drew scorn from Senate Republicans. “Today’s press conference should be seen for what it is: A political stunt 19 days before an election by a DFL majority desperate to maintain control,” said Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.
The timing of the Senate DFL gambit could lead to high-stakes political election maneuvering as state leaders look to help thousands of Minnesotans hit by higher health insurance premiums.
Republicans are constantly reminding voters that DFLers took the lead in creating MNsure, the state’s version of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
A special session would allow the DFL to show voters they took action to fix the problem.
In a statement released Thursday, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, was mostly dismissive: “House Republicans are open to any and all ideas that will reduce health care costs and fix the crisis Democrats have created on MNsure and the individual market,” he said. “Press conferences that seem aimed more at political cover than serious, short- and long-term solutions won’t do Minnesotans any good,” he added.
The DFL Senate proposal, which mirrors a plan last week by the House DFLers, would cap insurance premiums at 9.6 percent of income, doling out a refundable tax credit to families that need it.
House Republicans have proposed a tax cut, insurance premium relief from existing funds and the elimination of the MNsure exchange, which is the website where people can shop for plans.
The premium hikes of 50 percent or more for those who buy their health insurance on the individual market — about 250,000 Minnesotans — have become a dicey election year issue for DFLers who helped implement the program in 2013.
Republicans found new ammunition earlier in October from an unlikely source when Dayton said the “Affordable Care Act is no longer affordable for an increasing number of people.”
Bakk, who said he disagrees with Dayton’s assessment of the law, said that nevertheless his caucus feels urgent action is needed: “This is an economic catastrophe for these families,” he said.
Senate Republicans are six seats shy of a majority and believe the issue is a winner, especially in many of the outstate districts where they are trying to topple DFL incumbents.
Senate DFLers sought to help an endangered colleague by turning to an idea already developed by Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, who drafted a bill during the regular legislative session that would provide the tax credits proposed Thursday.
Bakk said the primary motive is to help people in need, but he acknowledged the political potency of the issue.
“I asked members, ‘What are you hearing about when you’re out on the doors?’ ” he said, referring to senators door-knocking for their re-election efforts.
“It was clear to me that we’re hearing from too many Minnesotans that this is just too big a burden on them,” he said.
Of those Minnesotans younger than 65 and therefore not on Medicare — which is the federal health insurance program for older Americans — nearly two-thirds receive their health insurance through some kind of group coverage, meaning their employer covers them and their families, according to the Department of Health. Nearly one-quarter of Minnesotans under 65 are in a public program like MinnesotaCare or Medical Assistance. About 7 percent are in the individual market, while the rest — about 5 percent — lack insurance.
Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, acknowledged the DFL proposal is not a long-term solution and would not help Minnesotans — especially in rural areas — whose choice of health plans has narrowed considerably.
He said a long-term fix for the individual market would have to wait until next year.