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Health care the top issue for legislative candidates in Oct. 18 forum

Republican Tony Jurgens (left) and DFLer Don Slaten participate in a League of Women Voters candidate forum Oct. 18 in Cottage Grove. They are running in Minnesota House District 54B. (RiverTown Multimedia photo by Scott Wente)

Five out of six legislative candidates agreed: Health care is among the biggest issues facing Minnesota.

Then they offered different prescriptions for treating rising costs and coverage problems when they met in a League of Women Voters candidate forum in Cottage Grove last week.

Affordability is the biggest issue, said Tony Jurgens, a Cottage Grove Republican, insurance agent and candidate for House District 54B. He said many Minnesotans face large premium increases of 40 or 50 percent.

“That’s unsustainable,” he said. “That’s what we need to address as well, is what are we going to do to rein in these costs because (they’re) unaffordable to families.”

Jurgens said if major changes are made to MNsure, the state marketplace for private insurance plans, a “catch all” is needed so everyone has the opportunity to get health care coverage.

His opponent, Don Slaten, said health care costs are being driven up by the volatility of the insurance market. Slaten, a Hastings DFLer, said the Legislature’s priority next year should be to work on the MNsure program.

Slaten also called for an audit of insurance companies to determine if they are following requirements to spend 80 percent of premium revenue on health care costs. “Is it really?” he wondered.

Their comments came during a Tuesday, Oct. 18, forum for candidates in Senate District 54 and House Districts 54A and 54B, which include south Washington County communities and Hastings.

The candidates’ responses to a health care question focused on MNsure, created as part of the federal Affordable Care Act and now under increased scrutiny as large premium increases are expected next year. Critics also point to costly administrative problems with the program.

Jen Peterson, a Cottage Grove DFLer running in District 54A, said there “definitely is room for improvement” with MNSure. She also said insurance companies make “way too much money” and control too many health care and medication decisions.

“Some of those decisions need to be made by the doctor,” she said, “and the insurance company needs to stay out of it.”

Peterson, currently a Cottage Grove City Council member, said Minnesota needs health insurance pools that include more people, and she would like to see insurance “portability” for when people move from job to job. Peterson also said she supports universal, single-payer health care.

Her opponent, Keith Franke, tossed out suggestions such as a high-risk insurance pool or an “uninsurable task force.” In the meantime, he said, the state needs to make sure people aren’t left out when they have a costly medical incident beyond their control.

“We cannot afford to leave anybody behind,” said Franke, a Republican and the St. Paul Park mayor.

Franke said both sides may have health care solutions.

“I’d be willing to discuss all the options,” he said.

Dan Schoen, who currently holds the House 54A seat and is running for Senate, said Congress has focused on trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act instead of working to improve what needs to be fixed.

Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, said the state needs to keep a tax on health care companies, which helps fund insurance for low-income Minnesotans.

Schoen also said the state should allow for larger insurance pools, such as multiple cities being able to join together on insurance for their employees. More policies in a pool can help stabilize costs, he said.

Leilani Holmstadt, a Cottage Grove Republican running against Schoen, did not participate in the forum.

Gas tax

The candidates discussed other issues during the forum, including increased Capitol partisanship, campaign finance and legislative transparency.

They split on support for a gasoline tax increase.

Jurgens and Franke said they oppose a gas tax increase, citing its regressivity. However, Jurgens noted that Minnesota can collect the gas tax from drivers visiting from other states, and Franke said the gas tax only can be spent on transportation.

Peterson said she would support a gas tax increase because it would help pay for transportation projects and could encourage more people to use transit. Slaten said he backs an increase because gas prices are lower than they were two years ago and a tax increase has not been approved in eight years. He’d support an increase “and any other way and option that we can come up (with) to fund our roads, our bridges, our transportation.”

Schoen said he would prefer a gas tax increase over other solutions, such as a legislative proposal earlier this year that would have doubled license tab fees.

“Every tax has got some regressivity,” Schoen said, but property taxes are more regressive than the gas tax.

The full candidate forum can be viewed at swctc.org.

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