By Catherine Richert
Minnesota Public Radio News
---- — ST. PAUL — MNsure is barely three weeks old, and, like President Barack Obama, Gov. Mark Dayton has found himself defending the state's new health insurance marketplace against heavy criticism that their respective exchanges are not working.
Compared to the federal insurance site that 36 states are using, Minnesota's homegrown exchange is in good shape, Dayton said recently.
"Fortunately, we decided to go our own route in Minnesota and the Legislature has supported that," he told reporters. "I think the MNsure beginning has been not perfect. But given the complexity and scope of the project, I think it's performed phenomenally well."
From the outside it appears MNsure has been working better than the federal exchange, although there are still plenty of complaints.
Obama has called for a "tech surge" to get the federal operation on track, while MNsure officials have been making what appear to be smaller-scale adjustments.
Dayton put MNsure on the fast-track when he took office in 2011, but was far from a public cheerleader at the outset. A supporter of a single-payer plan, Dayton called MNsure a "big gamble" earlier this year. He's clearly gotten more comfortable with the plan, but his recent comments are also a response to a brewing political battle over the exchange in next year's gubernatorial race.
Republicans vying to challenge Dayton next year are targeting MNsure. And they're capitalizing on the problems plaguing the federal exchange built by the Obama administration to raise money and to link Dayton to the federal exchange's problems. At an August debate, Dayton's challengers staked out their territory on MNsure.
"In 2015, when I'm governor — what do you do about it? My gut reaction is that you work from day one to eliminate it," said Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson.
While most other states have turned down the opportunity to implement major parts of the law themselves, Minnesota has gone in the opposite direction. In addition to creating a state-based insurance exchange, it's opted to expand Medicaid and to offer a basic health plan for people who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford an individual plan on the commercial market.
All that happened on Dayton's watch.
GOP candidate Scott Honour has been linking Dayton to Obama and the Affordable Care Act to raise money and to connect with voters through social media.
"Obamacare and MNsure continue to show shocking signs of incompetence, these big government failures point to the fact that we need true leadership now in Minnesota. Do you agree?" he recently wrote on his Facebook page.
Opposing MNsure puts the GOP candidates at odds with some powerful advocacy organizations that generally support Republicans. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the state's largest business group, and Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, an organization that opposes abortion, have backed the creation of a state-based insurance exchange.
University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said it's possible that MNsure's appearance in the race is momentary. Until the state Republican Party has nominated a candidate, Dayton's opponents are in the business of appealing to the base.
"The base of the party feels very intensely about [Obamacare]," he said. "It's feeding red meat to the Republican Party."
But whether MNsure — or the Affordable Care Act as a whole — crops up in the general election remains to be seen.
"What happens in the general election is going to depend on what happens with MNsure," Jacobs said. "It if succeeds as projected, then I think Republicans — as electoral necessity — will tweak their message from opposition to better management."
Republican Rep. Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove is running for governor, too. He hasn't decided if he would get rid of the exchange because he said "it hasn't been proven not to work yet."
Zellers said he doubts MNsure is going to live up to its promises.
That said, the federal exchange, the technologically challenged website that Minnesota would have to use if MNsure were eliminated, isn't looking like a good alternative to Zellers either. "I think that's even worse" than MNsure, he said.
As for critics of the new health care law, Dayton said they are only out to "disrupt and destroy" it. "Every slight misstep or glitch is jumped upon and they want 400 questions answered," Dayton said. Anything goes positive ... they have no interest in whatsoever."
Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in Mankato on 90.5 FM or at MPRnews.org.