ST. PAUL — The Minnesota House passed a bill Monday establishing the state’s health insurance exchange, the first step toward enactment of an online marketplace that aims to give more than a million Minnesotans a new place to purchase affordable health insurance.
Rep. Joe Atkins, the chief House sponsor, called the bill creating a health insurance exchange “the most significant health reform in 50 years” — since Medicare and Medicaid were created in 1965. The exchanges are a centerpiece of the federal health care overhaul.
Preliminary estimates are for the Minnesota-run exchange to offer coverage to 1.3 million people. Of those, about 300,000 currently lack health insurance.
“That’s people who will have insurance to rely upon to cover their health care needs,” said Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights.
Another 600,000 are people currently covered by public programs, and several more hundred thousand are small employers who ideally will be able to get a better deal than their current insurance offers.
The House approved the bill 72-58 on a nearly party-line vote, after a debate that lasted more than five hours. One Republican and one Democrat crossed party lines: Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, supported the bill, while Rep. Laurie Halvorsen, DFL-Eagan, voted against it.
The debate also produced a brief skirmish over abortion. The House amended the bill to prohibit abortions from being covered in plans sold on the exchange, with a handful of Democrats joining Republicans to make the change. A DFL lawmaker pointed out that the federal health care law also prohibits abortions from being covered.
Republicans complained that lawmakers were investing major state resources and time in an experiment. They raised concerns the exchange would drive insurance costs up for many Minnesotans, that participants would lose access to favorite doctors and that private medical information might not be closely guarded.
“Welcome to the Democrats’ health care exchange: less choice, more cost, no privacy,” said Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine.