The worry in Mike White's voice this week is a reminder that the inexcusable political stalemate in St. Paul over health insurance price hike relief has real-world consequences for hardworking Minnesotans.
White, 64, of St. Louis Park, is a self-employed milk deliveryman. He and his wife, who has a preexisting medical condition, buy private health insurance through the state’s increasingly expensive individual market. They fall into the unfortunate gap that proposed state relief is intended to help close. White earns slightly too much for federal subsidies through the Affordable Care Act, but not enough to cover his new monthly premiums: roughly $1,700 a month in 2017, a sum he estimates is double his monthly premiums this year.
Even a few weeks’ delay in enacting state aid is problematic for the Whites and other Minnesotans like them. The monthly bills for coverage starting Jan. 1 are coming due. The decision to buy 2017 coverage, which may hinge for many on the availability of a state subsidy, also must be made quickly. Open enrollment, the window of time to buy private insurance on the individual market for the coming year, ends Jan. 31. “We need answers,’’ White said. “It’s very stressful.”
This tight window for state policymakers to act is why the Star Tribune Editorial Board began calling for a special session to enact insurance relief in early October, when 2017 rates became public. About 120,000 Minnesotans fall into the unaffordability gap that the Whites are in. They need help and deserve it. The high rates are the result of a toxic mix of government and industry failures. Congress cut funds set aside to offset insurers’ losses, and regulators and insurers badly underestimated the changing individual market’s risks.
That it is late December and no state aid has been agreed to despite a solid plan put forth by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in late October is unacceptable. The public spat about a week ago between Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, ended hopes for an end-of-the-year deal. The stalemate also means that the other work left from the 2016 session — public works and tax legislation — regrettably won’t become reality.
The inability to agree on the health insurance relief is the most lamentable unfinished task because it leaves White and other Minnesotans in limbo, even as Republicans have vowed to make the aid a top priority in early 2017.
Although it’s tempting to blame both Dayton and lawmakers for this painful delay, that would not be accurate. Dayton offered up a plan — 25 percent tax rebates — that provided the swiftest, surest aid to beleaguered consumers. In contrast, House leadership is proposing to make relief contingent on passing sweeping, complicated or controversial health-care reforms. Examples: easing for-profit insurers’ ability to do business in Minnesota, or allowing small businesses to take on more risk to reduce health insurance costs.
To be clear, the Minnesota House has some worthy health reform proposals that merit consideration, especially the proposal to extend the state’s current “continuity of care” protections to individual plan holders who are switching coverage. But given that the potentially hefty cost of this reform (and who would pay for it) is still unknown, the time to consider it and other proposals isn’t during out-of-session leadership negotiations between Dayton and Daudt. The proper time is during the regular session where proposals can be vetted thoughtfully and transparently.
Relief for hard-pressed Minnesotans such as White shouldn’t have been held hostage to this broader agenda. It is deeply disappointing that this is the situation the state now finds itself in.