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Minnesota House passes health insurance premium relief for 120,000

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he expects to have a health care emergency aid and access bill on Gov. Mark Dayton's desk by next Thursday. (Forum News Service photo by Maureen McMullen)

ST. PAUL — Minnesota's top leaders seem on the brink of a deal to bring health insurance premium relief to as many as 120,000 Minnesotans.

This doesn't mean a deal will actually get done. More than once in recent months, Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders have been close to a compromise only for everything to fall apart. And despite signs of compromise, several major divisive issues remain.

But a bill to grant this relief could be days from passage. It's now headed to negotiations between both chambers, after the House voted Thursday to pass its version of relief. The Senate passed its version last week. Now, leaders in both parties are suggesting they're ready to start making concessions on the issues that have prevented a deal.

One of the biggest divisions is over who should administer the roughly $300 million in relief — state agencies or insurance companies. Republicans have pushed for a state-run system to get more control over how relief is distributed, while Dayton has backed a insurance company plan-run system because it will likely get relief out faster.

On Thursday, a top Republican leader said he might be willing to give in on that dispute.

"If (Democrats) want to convince Minnesotans that the private sector can do this more effectively and more efficiently than state government can, I guess we will agree with them on this point. We're open to that," said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.

Daudt said any concession there would need to be reciprocated in another area: Dayton would "need to be open to the reforms that are in the bill."

Those "reforms" are several measures aimed at improving the 2018 insurance market that are packed together with 2017 premium relief in the Republican bills. Dayton has said those reforms should wait for another bill.

But this week, Dayton cited some of the GOP-proposed reforms and suggested he might be open to them.

"I'm willing to look at anything, such as the continuity of care, such as the agricultural co-ops, that finds a way we can find common ground and get this done," Dayton said.

Despite these signs of compromise, divisive issues remain — including a new provision Republicans added Thursday to repeal requirements about what health plans must cover.

Experts from the Legislature and Dayton's administration will huddle this weekend to try to close the gap and arrive at a bill that all sides can agree on.

If all goes well, lawmakers could send a final health care relief bill to Dayton's desk by Thursday to be signed into law.

Depending on when Dayton signs the measure, that could give about five days before the open-enrollment period for individual market health insurance ends Jan. 31.

State officials say many Minnesotans have been holding back from buying insurance because they can't afford premiums of as high as $2,000 per month or more without assistance.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.