Blues say it's time to make health insurance more available

WILLMAR -- Officials with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota are hoping to gain headway next year at making health coverage more available for the uninsured.

WILLMAR -- Officials with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota are hoping to gain headway next year at making health coverage more available for the uninsured.

"I think we feel like now is the time," said Kathy Mock, vice president of public affairs for Blue Cross.

Blue Cross, one of the state's major providers of health insurance, plans to approach the Legislature during the 2007 session with a proposal for universal coverage.

The Blues also have pledged a willingness to work with other organizations, such as the Minnesota Medical Association and the Cover All Kids Coalition, to address the persistent issue of lack of health insurance.

Minnesota has traditionally had one of the lowest rates of uninsured in the United States, Mock said in a phone interview Wednesday.


But some of the most recent surveys are finding the state may be falling behind. In 1999, 5.4 percent of Minnesotans were uninsured; the newest figures now put this at 7.4 percent.

"For the first time in a number of years, we saw our uninsured rate go up. It's concerning," Mock said.

The Blue Cross proposal for universal coverage is based on a series of statewide forums during which key values -- such as fairness, affordability and choice -- were identified.

Among the proposal's main points:

n Required health insurance coverage for all Minnesotans.

n Subsidies to help low- and moderate-income people pay their premiums. Eligibility would be set at 300 percent of the federal poverty threshold -- $29,400 a year for an individual, $39,600 for a couple and $60,000 for a family of four.

n Guaranteed issue for anyone who applies for a health plan.

n Mechanisms to help people find appropriate health coverage and maximize both their coverage and their tax benefits.


Neither the overall cost nor the subsidy payment mechanism have been discussed yet, Mock said.

Significant discussion also is needed on the details, such as how to sustain the program and which benefits must be covered if health insurance is mandated.

"That's a big policy question that we as a state will have to wrestle with, because whatever you pick will have implications for cost," Mock said.

There are signs the Legislature will be interested in hearing the proposal. Gov. Tim Pawlenty recently announced an initiative to provide health coverage for Minnesota children.

At least one other state -- Massachusetts -- has made it mandatory for residents to have health insurance.

"I think there's a lot of momentum. It's clearly what everybody's talking about," Mock said.

Realistically, major change is probably at least two years away, she said.

But Blue Cross officials believe legislators can agree on the concept of universal coverage and have a framework in place by the end of the 2007 session.


What the Blues would like to see: "a good healthy discussion, for one thing, about where we want to go as a state," Mock said.

There also are some changes that can be enacted relatively easily to help make insurance more available to those who are uninsured, she said.

For instance, young adults currently can't remain on their parents' health insurance policy until age 25 unless they're a student. Removing the requirement that they be a student would help make insurance more accessible to this age group, Mock said.

Surveys also suggest a sizable number of uninsured Minnesotans are eligible for subsidized MinnesotaCare insurance or other special programs -- but aren't enrolling.

MinnesotaCare is the state's health insurance plan for people who can't afford private insurance but who do not qualify for other subsidized programs.

Outreach efforts could help identify more of these people and get them enrolled in the coverage, Mock said.

"You don't have to just wait for the Legislature to enact something. There are a number of things we can do to chip away at that," she said.

Blue Cross officials have been traveling around the state in recent weeks, explaining the proposal and hearing reactions.


Blue Cross also hopes to enlist some partners in addressing a plan to make insurance more available for Minnesotans, Mock said.

"We're talking with anybody that will talk to us," she said. "We have been able to solve problems together. We thought it was time for us to step up and push the conversation about 'Let's do something now.'"

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