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Senators approve online health insurance sales

Minnesotans should be able to buy health insurance online later this year, with legislators now just needing to wrap up the details.

Senators debated 12 hours, ending late Thursday with what is believed to be a single-bill debate record, before approving 37-28 the Minnesota Insurance Marketplace. The bill establishing a Web-based system to buy health insurance and a similar one the House passed Monday night will head to a conference committee where lawmakers will merge the versions into one that Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton likely will sign.

Support for the Senate measure, like in the House, mostly split along party lines with Democrats backing the bill written by Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick.

Republicans’ big complaint was that no insurance agents or other experts would be allowed on the marketplace’s governing board.

“We are creating the most powerful board in the state of Minnesota,” Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said, and one without members who understand the industry.

Lourey said that the bill makes a historic change, saying it “will have a profound impact ... on people’s lives.”

“We definitely are changing the course of health care delivery in this state,” Rosen said. “Hopefully, we are getting it right.”

Lourey said 70 percent of 1.3 million Minnesotans who would use the marketplace, also called an exchange, would either experience no premium increase or would pay less.

While the measure mostly sets up a Web site for Minnesotans to compare and buy insurance policies, people who are not comfortable with using a computer for such needs also will be able to get help via telephone.

The marketplace also is how many people who obtain state-subsidized health care will apply for help.

Federal law requires the marketplace to be running by Oct. 1, with insurance policies starting Jan. 1.

The board to govern the exchange was the most contentious issue in legislative debate, which included stops in 18 committees. Lourey said he wants to exclude insurance agents and others actively involved in the industry because they would have a conflict of interest.

Senators amended Lourey's bill, on a 45-19 vote, to require all legislators to use the marketplace to buy their insurance. They accepted a few other mostly Republican-written amendments, but Democrats rejected all major changes.

Minimum wage raise?

A push to raise the state’s minimum wage to $10.55 an hour was approved 9-7 Thursday by a House committee.

“Minnesota is substantially below where it once was,” bill author Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said.

Ben Gerber of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce said the change is “detrimental to the business model in our state.

Rep. Andrea Kieffer, R-Woodbury, said the bill is “trying to micromanage” business.

The bill is one of a number of proposals to increase the state’s minimum wage, currently set at $6.15. Many Minnesota employees qualify for the $7.25 federal minimum wage.

Gov. Mark Dayton said this week that the supports a new minimum wage of $9 to $9.50.

Reciprocity could be close

Minnesota and Wisconsin are close to restoring income tax reciprocity between the states starting in tax year 2014, officials say.

People who work in one state and live in another only would have to file income taxes where they live.

A study ordered by the Minnesota Legislature released March 1 showed more than twice as many Wisconsin residents work in Minnesota as the reverse.

“I believe Minnesota has now made its best offer to Wisconsin, and I hope our neighbor will accept it,” Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, said.

The agreement Minnesota proposes includes quarterly payments from Wisconsin to make up for lost tax revenue.

Reimburse rural hospitals

Small hospitals would be reimbursed for services such as MRIs without needing extra accreditation under a plan unanimously approved Thursday by the Minnesota House.

“It’s a common-sense solution that many rural hospitals were asking for,” bill author Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake, said.

The bill exempts critical access hospitals, those with fewer than 25 patient beds, from accreditation requirements implemented last year. McNamar said those requirements meant some hospitals lost money.

By Don Davis, Forum News Service

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