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Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, answers questions from constituents Saturday during a townhall meeting at McKale’s restaurant in New London. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Health care center stage at New London legislative forum

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NEW LONDON — The state’s proposed health insurance exchange system required under the federal Affordable Care Act took center stage at a legislative forum Saturday morning in New London.

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Sen. Lyle Koenen and Rep. Mary Sawatzky said they were not surprised with the numerous questions about plan. It’s the top concern they hear about from constituents.

“It gets a lot of attention,” said Koenen, DFL-Clara City.

“It’s a huge change,” said Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar.

The legislators tried to answer detailed questions as best they could about the state health care exchange plan, passed Friday by the House and expected to be passed today by the Senate, and acknowledged there’s no guarantee it will accomplish the goal of reducing costs for health care and medical insurance.

“It is an experiment. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out,” said Koenen

But the current state of rising costs and uninsured individuals using emergency rooms for basic medical care was not a sustainable path for the future, he said. “Doing nothing was not an option.”

Currently, many uninsured individuals obtain basic medical care from emergency rooms, with the expensive bills passed onto those with insurance in the form of higher medical costs.

Barb Norine of Atwater questioned how the new insurance exchange program would be funded. “Everybody has to have skin in the game,” she said.

Koenen said that will happen because everyone will be required to purchase insurance, or pay a fine. Currently, uninsured people have little choice but to go to get ER care, he said.

Because more people will be paying for health insurance, it’s expected that premium costs will decrease, and because more people will go to a clinic for basic care instead of ER, health care costs should also decrease.

Sawatzky said if Minnesota did not establish its own health care exchange, it would be required to operate under a federal exchange. She said she prefers having “local control” with a state-operated system.

She said big changes can be “very uncomfortable” and that perhaps the Affordable Care Act was going faster than some were comfortable with.

Koenen said it’s vital that the program be continually monitored and adjusted to meet needs. “It’s humanly impossible to get it right the first time.”

Jim Schwarz, a New London resident, presented a proposed constitutional amendment for the “protection of conscience act” that would protect medical institutions that refused to participate in activities like assisted suicide and abortion, and would protect employers who chose not to provide employee insurance that could also be used for abortions.

“This is an important issue and a passionate issue,” said Sawatzky, adding that it is also not a “simple issue.”

The legislators fielded questions ranging from the state budget, renewable energy and transportation to concern about a skills test Minnesota requires new teachers to take, property taxes and Local Government Aid for cities.

Harris Duininck, a prominent businessman from Duininck Inc. of Prinsburg, commended Koenen and Sawatzky for the big job they had of dealing with numerous, complicated issues, and he gave a gentle warning that their constituents would be speaking loud and clear.

“We as citizens have to get in your face sometimes about these issues,” he said. “We have to tell you.”

State budget

Koenen said there was a “misunderstanding” in the business community about Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed business-to-business service tax. Koenen said there were provisions that addressed out-of-state competition tax issues, but because it was opposed by large and small businesses, it was removed in the governor’s revised budget plan.

That’s resulted in $2 billion in lost revenue from the budget that Dayton is making up for it in other ways, including the elimination of his proposed $500 property tax rebate for every property owner. Koenen said, however, there may be other options for property tax relief and the governor is proposing adding $80 million to Local Government Aid, which would help rural cities keep property taxes low.

Increasing taxes on the state’s wealthiest individuals is popular with most Minnesotans, said Koenen, who said he is getting “mixed signals” from those in the fourth-tier tax bracket who would pay higher taxes.

Transportation

Action is brewing to continue progress to make state Highway 23 a four-lane road from Willmar to St. Cloud. Sawatzky said a hearing will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Capitol to discuss a comprehensive plan to “get this gap filled” on Highway 23.

Harris Duininck, whose construction company has built many roads in the area, said Minnesota highways need to be built with greater load limits to better handle commercial truck traffic. It’s a plan that is apparently gaining support from state officials, but Duininck said railway companies oppose it.

Renewable energy

David George, chief executive officer of Kandiyohi Power Cooperative, asked Sawatzky and Koenen to support legislation that would ease up on renewable energy requirements. He said power companies and cooperatives are forced to buy energy produced by wind or solar sources that is expensive and that they do not need. Because their customers do not need the excess energy, the cooperatives sell it back to the power grid at less than half the price they paid for it.

George said it’s important to invest in renewable energy research but said utility users are subsidizing current wind and solar projects.

Koenen said some existing bills had “unintended consequences.”

Homestead tax credit

The homestead tax credit that was eliminated in 2011 legislation dealt a financial blow to rural Minnesotans. Koenen said, however, the credit may not be dead.

Over the last decade Koenen said there have been cuts to Local Government Aid and the homestead property tax credit was eliminated — two programs that benefited rural Minnesota.

Meanwhile there have been increases in property tax refunds, which is a program that typically benefits metro communities, he said.

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Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750
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