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GOP legislators hope to change health-exchange bill in conference

Republicans are looking for substantive, ideological changes to the exchange’s governing board and conflict-of-interest rules, regulatory model and data privacy practices.

Republican lawmakers continued pressuring Democrats on Friday to compromise with the GOP on the implementation of Minnesota’s health insurance exchange.

The chambers of the DFL-controlled Legislature this week passed different versions of legislation to establish a state-based exchange along near party lines. Republicans have raised alarms about the Democrat-backed exchange since session began, and they say their concerns have largely been ignored.

Now lawmakers have to come together on a single plan and secure Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature on the bill before the end of the month — or face a federally imposed exchange. More than a year of executive branch labor and weeks of brutal committee stops and lengthy legislative debate have gone into avoiding that outcome.

MinnPost photo by James Nord
House Majority Leader Erin Murphy said there are significant differences between the House and Senate versions of the health insurance exchange bill.

“As the bill came off the Senate floor last night, we have significant differences between the House and the Senate,” House Majority Leader Erin Murphy told reporters on Friday. “Next week a conference committee will be appointed and those differences will be ironed out.”

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Supporters say the huge health insurance overhaul could affect 1.3 million Minnesotans and provide a one-stop shop for consumers and small businesses to compare and purchase coverage while also significantly reducing health-care costs.

Republican legislators largely ignored implementing an exchange, a key mechanism of the federal health-care reform law, during their stint in the majority over the last two years. Now that Obamacare is the law of the land, though, Republicans have come forward this session to attempt to shape Minnesota’s exchange legislation.

So far, they’ve been disappointed.

“This exchange results in more cost, less choice and no privacy,” Assistant House Minority Leader Kelby Woodard said on Friday, summing up GOP opposition to the exchange.

Republicans offered roughly 100 amendments to the exchange legislation ahead of the House vote on Monday and had even more on hand during Thursday’s 12-hour debate and eventual vote in the Senate.

Democrats argued that they did listen to Republican ideas by adopting 14 GOP-backed amendments in the Senate on Thursday.

‘All voices were heard’

“We’re all a little tired,” Deputy Senate Majority Leader Jeff Hayden said Friday morning. “It was a robust debate, a spirited debate and one that we wanted to have. We think it was important that all voices were heard, and they were. Sometimes, over and over and over, but we know that’s the way it works around here and we think it’s important.”

But Republican lawmakers are looking for substantive, ideological changes to the exchange’s governing board and conflict-of-interest rules, regulatory model and data privacy practices.

Sen. Michelle Benson
Sen. Michelle Benson

“As we move forward, I hope the conference committee will listen very closely to the debate that was in the committees, the debate that was on the floor and come out with something that can be good for Minnesota,” said GOP Sen. Michelle Benson, an outspoken critic of the exchange. “Some Republicans could support it if there are significant changes, but if it comes out looking like it went in, it will remain a DFL exchange.”

It’s unclear if Republicans will have the opportunity to shape the bill through the conference committee process, which is where the final legislation will come together.

GOP Rep. Jim Abeler voted for the exchange — despite opposing the bill in its current form — in order to have a shot at becoming a conferee. Sen. Julie Rosen, who voted against the bill in her chamber, also said she’d like to be on the conference committee.

One DFLer opposed House bill

Rep. Laurie Halverson, a DFLer from Eagan, was the only Democrat in the House to oppose the exchange bill.

DFL Sen. Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka was the only member of her party in the Senate to vote against the legislation there.

“While I strongly support this exchange in concept, I see areas of improvement that I think should be addressed before it becomes law,” Bonoff said in an email.

Despite the sudden rash of input and small pockets of bipartisanship, Republicans didn’t seem particularly optimistic about their ability to meaningfully reform the exchange.

“I’m not holding out any great illusions of it coming out of conference committee any better than it is right now,” Rosen said. “I just hope and pray that it will work, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing it back here at the Capitol.”