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Pawlenty: Buy health insurance from other states

Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Tuesday unveils three health-care proposals, including one that would allow Minnesotans to buy health insurance from other states. Don Davis/Minn. State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL -- A Minnesota family could save up to 7 percent of its health insurance costs a year if allowed to buy insurance in other states, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Tuesday in proposing that legislators change current law that prohibits such purchases.

The Republican governor proposed allowing families and businesses to buy insurance from companies in one of 20 states that his administrations deems to be the "most effective in terms of regulating health insurance policies and have the best health outcomes for their residents."

Pawlenty had no estimate of how many dollars Minnesotans would save if insurance could be purchased from other states, but Commerce Commissioner Glenn Wilson said the savings would come both in buying less expensive policies elsewhere and from the three dominant Minnesota insurers lowering their rates to meet new competition.

No state now allows its residents to buy health insurance from out of state.

The proposal was one of three Pawlenty unveiled Tuesday, all of which need approval from a Democratic-controlled Legislature.

"The governor's efforts to protect HMOs and maintain the status quo on health care are neither new nor innovative, and would not work for the people of Minnesota," said Chairman Brian Melendez of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

But the state House's top health-care Democrat generally agreed with the Pawlenty proposals.

Rep. Tom Huntley of Duluth said in a call from Washington, where he is leading a group of legislators from around the country in a health-care reform meeting, that he does not support simply allowing Minnesotans to buy insurance from any state. If Minnesota regulators holds other states' insurance policies to the same standards as Minnesota companies, Huntley added, buying from other states might work.

However, the health finance committee chairman said, he is skeptical that Minnesotans will save as much as Pawlenty projects.

Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, was harsher on Pawlenty than was Huntley.

"The only way to save money by selling across state lines is by providing substandard policies," the Senate's health finance chairwoman said. "What this does is put more money into the pockets of the insurance companies."

While allowing cross-border insurance purchases was Pawlenty's headline proposal, he offered two others.

One plan would reward Minnesotans who use the MinnesotaCare state insurance program for the poor and a free health-care program known as Medical Assistance if they go to efficient health clinics. Now, they can pick any clinic.

The rewards for going to medically and fiscally effective clinics would include added benefits such as providing funds to buy eyeglasses and over-the-counter medicines that now are not covered.

Human Services Commissioner Cal Ludeman estimated the state would save up to $40 million annually if Minnesotans in the programs used more efficient clinics.

The third proposal Pawlenty released was to change MinnesotaCare so adults with incomes 133 percent or more of the federal poverty level would be required to pay for some of their health expenses. Again, he suggested that those who use lower-cost health-care providers be given financial rewards. Pawlenty had no estimate about how much this proposal would save.

Huntley said he likes the concept of rewarding Minnesotans to use more effective health-care providers, but given the increased need for care of the state's poor residents, he wondered if there would be much savings.

The chairman said he will hold "a lot of hearings" on health issues once the next legislative session begins in February. House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, predicted health care will be one of the session's top priorities.

Pawlenty said he will roll out further health-care proposals.

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.