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Minnesota farmers wonder about health insurance as uncertainties cloud future

Minnesota Republican governor cndidate Keith Downey talks to Farmfest visitors Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017. He said health care is at the top of issues. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 3
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, who serves southnern Minnesota, says on Monday, July 31, 2017, that recent federal health care legilation failures make this a good time to "hit reset." He appears with Mankato-area health care experts. Don Davis/ Forum News Service2 / 3
Farmfest visitors Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, put up with hot weather to examine the latest farm equipment at southwest Minnesota's annual all-things-agriculture show. Don Davis / Forum News Service3 / 3

REDWOOD FALLS, Minn.—Mike Orbeck may be lucky: He pretty much knows what his health insurance will be next year.

Many of his fellow farmers do not know what to expect as federal plans to overturn health care laws failed and the state says individual health insurance policy rates should remain about the same next year, if Minnesota gets federal approval for a new state program.

Recent health insurance news, sometimes conflicting and always confusing, has those who rely on individual policies worried. Farmers are a major user of individual policies.

Orbeck for years bought individual policies like many farmers, those without a spouse who works in a job that comes with health insurance. He paid $440 a month and faced $5,000 deductibles—far lower costs than many farmers pay. But it was too much for him.

"This year, I said I couldn't afford that anymore," the Paynesville farmer said at Farmfest Wednesday, Aug. 2.

For this year's insurance, he spent 20 minutes on the MNsure website and discovered he qualified for MinnesotaCare, a state-subsidized insurance program for Minnesotans who cannot afford insurance but make too much money to qualify for free health care coverage under Medicaid, known as Medical Assistance in Minnesota.

Now, Orbeck pays $71 a month (premiums are based on the ability to pay), there are no deductibles and his co-pays are low.

Agriculture leaders and politicians say farmers list health insurance near the top of their concern lists. Even if Orbeck knows what his 2018 policy will look like, there is enough uncertainty among other farmers that they say they are worried.

In many cases, MNsure CEO Allison O'Toole said during her own Farmfest visit, that Minnesotans, insurance agents and people who specialize in assisting others to get insurance can find savings on the site. Insurance purchasers may not qualify for MinnesotaCare, but they may be eligible for federal subsidies, which only are available on MNsure.

Minnesotans are concerned about health insurance, O'Toole said, evidenced by an increase in calls MNsure receives from 900 to about 1,100 a day.

Minnesotans needing insurance next year "are just nervous," O'Toole said, thanks to confusing political debate.

A year ago, concerns were about big insurance policy premium increases, she said, but this year MNsure calls have moved more toward the future of insurance.

Nancy Dahlin, Chisago County health and human services director, said her department is getting lots of calls, too.

"Folks are super worried that they just are not going to be able to have heath care," she said. "We are just deluged about everything health care."

"it is a hard choice for people" to chose among house, car loan and insurance payments, Dahlin said.

Interest in health care issues has grown "exponentially" in recent years, she added.

Farmers Union insurance agent Mike Panka, who has offices in Ivanhoe and Canby, said his telephone is not ringing a lot as farmers try to understand the latest insurance twists and turns. For him, things will pick up this fall when the 2018 individual policies go on sale.

"We are optimistic they are going to get things figured out," Panka said.

State and federal aid helped with premiums this year and will for 2018, but policymakers need to decide how long that will last.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat who serves southern Minnesota, said in Mankato on Monday that federal inaction on changing federal law known as Obamacare gives officials "a pause point" where they can take a closer look at programs like Medicaid. He and other Democrats say it is time for Republicans who control Congress and the White House to sit down with them to find workable legislation.

Many Republicans remain convinced that eliminating Obamacare is the major step in fixing high insurance costs and other health care problems. However, it is not clear when Congress will resume considering health care legislation.

While uncertainty reigns in Congress, Monday was good news for Minnesotans who buy insurance on the individual market, whether it is via MNsure or private agents.

Preliminary figures show those policies could remain at about the same cost next year as they are this year. But that can only happen if federal officials give Minnesota permission to launch a $540 million plan lawmakers passed earlier this year to temporarily help make premiums more affordable.

Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper said that while the premium news appears good, state officials do not know how many choices individual insurance purchases will see in each county or what doctors and other providers will be included in each insurer's network.

The state is due to release final individual policy costs and other details in early October.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.