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Commentary: We should expand MinnesotaCare so anyone can buy in

For nearly three decades MinnesotaCare has been a trusted choice for health care coverage, providing an affordable option for working people earning too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford traditional insurance.

We now have a chance to take the sensible step of allowing all Minnesotans to buy into the program, paying their own way for high-quality, more affordable health coverage. This common-sense solution would help an estimated 100,000 more Minnesotans access the insurance they need, at prices they can better afford — more than double the number served today.

This proposal comes at a good time. While Minnesota has a solid record on providing affordable health coverage, recently there have been troubling signs. A recent Minnesota Department of Health survey showed nearly 339,000 Minnesotans did not have health insurance in 2017. That's 116,000 more than in 2015.

Those statistics come to life in stories from all around Minnesota. The Minnesota Farmers Union reported the cost of health insurance dominated its statewide listening sessions, including the story of a couple who would incur more than $40,000 in out-of-pocket costs before seeing a benefit from their insurance.

Amid these concerns, Minnesotans have voiced strong support for expanding MinnesotaCare so anyone can buy in, as Gov. Mark Dayton proposed this year for a second time. More legislators need to take these voices to heart if this solution is to succeed. We encourage policy makers to consider these five things as they weigh this issue:

• The MinnesotaCare Buy-in builds on what works. Created by a bipartisan group of policy makers, MinnesotaCare enjoys broad support. MinnesotaCare helps people address urgent health needs, but it does more than that. People who are insured are more likely to get the preventive care they need to keep small problems small.

• Costs would be lower than the private market. The MinnesotaCare buy-in would cost, on average, 28 percent less than the expected cost for commercial health plans, and enrollees would be eligible for significant tax credits. Meanwhile, the buy-in would reimburse health care providers at the same rate as Medicare, strengthening the financial health of small, often rural practices and local hospitals.

• Enrollees would pay their own way. This is not free health care. Individuals who choose the MinnesotaCare buy-in would pay their own way, meaning the cost of their premiums would pay for their coverage.

• The buy-in would be sustainable over time. After minimal start-up costs, enrollee premiums would pay for the program. The MinnesotaCare buy-in option is a more fiscally responsible and sustainable solution than costly and short-term alternatives such as premium discounts and reinsurance.

• This is a common-sense approach. By building on the successful MinnesotaCare program, we add an affordable choice to the marketplace — that's especially valuable in the five counties where only one health plan was available this year.

The MinnesotaCare buy-in won't solve all health care problems, but it meets an important need and helps 100,000 more Minnesotans get health care. That's a good start.