Affordable Public Option Beats Bailing Out Insurers

How to improve our health insurance system is an urgent matter for nearly everyone in Minnesota. It’s a top issue for farmers across Minnesota, and one of the most frequent concerns heard by clergy. For months, policymakers in St. Paul worked on details for how to provide immediate assistance to people who buy health insurance in Minnesota’s individual market. In the process, there was a great deal of talk — and delay — over the need for reforms to prevent the same skyrocketing premiums next year.

In proposing his two-year budget, Governor Mark Dayton added another common-sense solution to the discussion: allow all Minnesotans buying health insurance in the individual market to purchase MinnesotaCare coverage.

The outrageous rates set by insurance companies have put families in many of our congregations and communities in difficult spots, so immediate assistance was needed. But when it comes to longer-term solutions, lawmakers need not reinvent the wheel. MinnesotaCare is a proven, successful public program that already provides health insurance coverage to about 100,000 Minnesotans.

MinnesotaCare makes much more sense than the “reinsurance” proposal that has also been proposed, which would give $150 million of state money to insurance companies to soak up the cost of some of their most expensive claims. No strings attached. It might lower premiums a little bit in the short term — if insurance companies choose to — but it would do nothing to address the huge deductibles and loss of access to doctors that people currently face.

And, reinsurance would do nothing to stop insurance companies from raising their rates again next year or demanding more of the Legislature yet again. The three largest Minnesota insurers have nearly $3 billion combined in reserves. Why give a taxpayer-funded bailout to insurance companies that do not need it without addressing the underlying problem in our individual health insurance market?

By contrast, MinnesotaCare has provided affordable coverage to working Minnesotans for over 20 years. The coverage is far better than the individual plans offered by private insurers — the 100,000 people covered by MinnesotaCare pay no deductible and have access to a wide network of doctors. A bipartisan task force that investigated healthcare finance issues last year found that expanding MinnesotaCare’s income eligibility by about $18,000 for a family of four would give access to about 40,000 more people, and do it for less money than covering this group through the individual market.

It’s simple: MinnesotaCare provides better coverage for less money. Any Minnesotan should be able to buy a MinnesotaCare plan in addition to their other options. If private plans are forced to compete with the lower costs, better coverage and wider networks that MinnesotaCare offers, it will improve insurance for everyone.

If the corporate insurance companies cannot or will not provide decent health insurance coverage at reasonable prices, then we must provide a public alternative. Instead of handing $150 million straight to the health insurance industry, we should instead put these public resources to work in our most successful public healthcare program to deliver what people need: quality medical care from the doctors you choose at prices that are affordable.

We need changes to make comprehensive, affordable health coverage available to all Minnesotans. Making MinnesotaCare an option for everyone is a reform that can actually make things better.

Land Stewardship Project members Mark and Gail Berle farm near Gibbon, Minn. Rev. Sarah Campbell is the Team Lead Minister at Mayflower United Church of Christ in Minneapolis. This commentary was written with LSP partner organization ISAIAH, which organizes people of faith around Minnesota.