Two big national health insurers are moving forward with plans to become more competitive in the state's insurance markets for employer groups and individuals who qualify for Medicare.

A new joint-venture company launched last year by Minneapolis-based Allina Health System and Aetna, the Connecticut-based health insurance giant, announced details Wednesday about the insurer's executive leadership team, which includes three people with experience at other local health plans.

Meanwhile, Minnetonka-based UnitedHealthcare said it now has contracts with Mayo Clinic, Fairview Health Services and other health care providers, so the insurer can sell employer coverage this fall that provides access to a broad network of doctors and hospitals.

UnitedHealthcare has "approximately 200 people who are just dedicated to the Minnesota health plan," said Philip Kaufman, chief executive of UnitedHealthcare of Minnesota. "It's a mix. Many of them are new hires, but there certainly [are] people who have come from other parts of United."

Officials with both Allina-Aetna and UnitedHealthcare, which is the nation's largest health insurer, first announced in 2017 their plans to expand in Minnesota starting this year.

For years, Minnesota's health insurance market has been dominated by local nonprofits that could offer a wider range of products than for-profit companies. Until 2017, state law only allowed nonprofit HMOs in Minnesota and also reserved for those insurers state contracts to managed care in public programs like Medicaid.

Minnesota dropped the ban on for-profit HMOs last year, but the expansion plans at Allina-Aetna and UnitedHealthcare apparently have less to do with the HMO change than a coming shift in the Medicare market. Next year, more than 300,000 Minnesotans will change Medicare health plans when a federal law effectively eliminates "Medicare Cost" health plans in the Twin Cities and across much of the state.

The Medicare-coverage shift creates an opportunity for new players, and both UnitedHealthcare and Allina-Aetna have said they want to compete for Medicare business. Their moves depend on regulatory approval, however, so details won't be available until the fall.

In the meantime, UnitedHealthcare has been negotiating contracts with doctors and hospitals, so that employer groups that sign up for coverage starting in October will have a wide choice of in-network providers, Kaufman said.

The new leadership team at Allina-Aetna includes two executives from Minnetonka-based Medica and one from Eagan-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, plus a physician who was Allina's chief strategy officer. Tom Lindquist, the Allina-Aetna chief executive, said he now expects the joint-venture company will employ about 25 people — up from a previous estimate of less than 10.

After factoring contributions from employees at the parent companies, Lindquist estimated there are about 200 people overall working on the Allina-Aetna launch. Lindquist said he didn't expect to make a huge splash selling coverage to employers over the next six months, suggesting instead it would come within the next 18 months.

"I think the bigger opportunity is on the Medicare side," Lindquist said. "I think for January we should definitely have a pretty significant impact on the market in the Medicare Advantage space."

Officials with both Allina-Aetna and UnitedHealthcare said they have people meeting with insurance agents and brokers to educate them about their product offerings.

Kaufman said his company's health plans for Minnesota employers will include enhanced access to care coordination for families that include children with special needs. The initiative will include that chance for families to meet "face-to-face," he said, with a care coordinator located in the Twin Cities metro.

Whereas Allina-Aetna initially will focus on selling to customers in the Twin Cities, UnitedHealthcare hopes to sell statewide, Kaufman said. In the Medicare market, that includes plans to compete in St. Louis County, even though that's one of the counties that apparently isn't losing the "Medicare Cost" health plans that will be phased out across much of Minnesota in 2019.

"Duluth is definitely one of the [markets] that we are considering, and we would like to enter," Kaufman said.

UnitedHealthcare already covers some Minnesotans via large "self-insured" plans offered by some multistate employers. What's new for the company is a push to sell "fully insured" products to employers. Kaufman said he hoped the first new large employer customers would have coverage that takes effect in October.

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744 Twitter: @chrissnowbeck