Health insurance exchanges on the agenda at TruthToTell community forum

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This week, the state legislature will attempt to reconcile House and Senate bills to define the parameters of state’s federally mandated Health Insurance Exchange. As deliberations were underway at the Capitol, key spokespeople and several members of the community gathered at the Wilder Foundation Building in St. Paul on March 13 to discuss the impact of the impending decisions on individual consumers in Minnesota.

The panel discussion and public forum was a production of the CivicMedia-Minnesota, KFAI Radio, and St. Paul Neighborhood Network (SPNN)‘s new collaborative series: TruthToTell: Community Connections hosted by Andy Driscoll and Michelle Alimoradi. (Podcast of public forum below.)

In this second installment of this special televised TTT series, Andy and Michelle spoke with panelists, Paul Sobocinski, a rural policy program organizer for the Land Stewardship Project, Dr. Elizabeth Frost, single-payer advocate with Physicians for a National Health Plan – Minnesota,  Sarah Greenfield, Health Care Program Manager for TakeAction/Minnesota and policy lead on Health Benefits Exchanges at the Legislature, and Audrey Britton, a board member for Small Business Minnesota.

Sarah Greenfield kicked off the conversation by giving a briefing on key differences between the House and Senate bills, noting that the success of the system rides heavily on the strength of the board of governors as “Active Purchasers.” This role would serve as the quality control filter for insurance products offered on the Exchange, and would make the environment competitive enough to drive down costs of individual insurance products.

Dr. Elizabeth Frost admitted she was not excited about the decision to eliminate the single-payer option early in the 2010 federal deliberations, but she noted that the implementation of the Exchange system, which establishes a bottleneck for coverage in each state, could segue conveniently to an eventual transition to a single-payer system. “[Insurance companies] don’t actually provide medical care,” says Frost, “so they’re not actually necessary.”

Rural community advocate Paul Sobocinski expressed only moderate optimism that the new system would drive down costs, as panelists and audience members alike reiterated the absence of explicit language in the 2010 Affordable Care Act requiring insurance companies to reduce product costs in exchange for the mandate that will ensure exponential growth in their customer base.

“We look at this as a fight back against the corporate power of the insurance companies,” Sobocinski said. “Farmer’s enter the market as independent business people, not as a big group. With the exchange board that’s now set up, free of the insurance companies, there’s an opportunity to work for a better plan.”

Audrey Britton, also speaking on behalf of independent buyers and small business groups spoke about the detriment that predicted premium inflation could cause to her constituents once the Exchange is up and running. “Minnesota has more Fortune 500 companies per capita than any other state in the nation, however, small businesses employ more Minnesotans than all those Fortune 500s combined…and yet health insurance for us as small businesses is disproportionately high and sometimes cost prohibitive,” Britton said.

Greenfield was hopeful that there would be a reconciliation in the legislature as early as next week. She also said she was not entirely clear how easily or how often the new system can be amended to fix the initial kinks that show up once it is implemented.

Video coverage of the full forum discussion will air on SPNN cable channel 19 in St. Paul and MTN cable channel 16 in Minneapolis at 8 p.m. CST on Monday, March 18.

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Find more TruthToTell content in the TTT archivesTruthToTell’s regular weekly programs, airing on KFAI Mondays at 9:00AM, are produced and hosted by Andy Driscoll and Michelle Alimoradi. These conversations, airing since 2007, are focused on local, state and regional issues.