Sept. 28--Too many choices could be a bad thing when it comes to buying health insurance via the Internet.
That's the concern health care activist Buddy Robinson brought up Thursday during a meeting of the Minnesota Health Insurance Exchange Advisory Task Force at the Fond du Lac Reservation.
The 15-member group consisting of state legislators, state officials and nonprofit and business representatives is trying to craft the exchange, intended to allow people to choose health insurance plans over the Internet, in time to meet deadlines established by the Affordable Care Act.
The exchanges are supposed to be inaugurated on Jan. 1, 2014, and if states haven't designed their own plans by then, the federal government will impose a plan.
Minnesota is ahead of the pack, said James Schowalter, commissioner of Minnesota Management and Budget, in a news conference after the meeting.
"We're one of the few states to really have some of the infrastructure discussion put together," Schowalter said. "We are making the milestones that the federal government is asking us to meet."
But Thursday's meeting illustrated the difficulty in building a statewide online insurance market from scratch. The group grappled with the possibility of consumers being bewildered by too many choices.
"Oftentimes when confronted with just myriad choices it becomes overwhelming, and it's a very unhelpful environment from which to pick the best one," said task force member state Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, during the news conference.
The task force agreed to recommend a "meaningful difference" standard. That means that the plans insurers offer must contain significant differences from any other plans they offer. That standard would be phased in over time, Schowalter said, and the task force also recommended that other options be studied.
In the public comment section, Robinson said "meaningful difference" was a bad idea.
Robinson, staff director of Minnesota Citizens Federation-Northeast and co-chairman of the Greater Minnesota Health Care Coalition, said he feared insurers would sidestep the intent of "meaningful difference" and manage to offer a "flood of choices," burying harmful clauses in fine print.
"A huge number of choices does not help the consumer," he said. "Instead, it helps the insurance companies, which is exactly why they keep singing their song of maximizing the choices."
Robinson proposed instead that each insurer be allowed to offer 10 choices at the most.
"It just seems so much simpler and wiser to just give them a limit on the number, and put your best several feet forward," Robinson said.
In the news conference, state Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, suggested the problem might never develop.
"It's a lot of work for insurance companies to make these applications and fill them out, and it's very expensive," said Huntley, also a task force member. "So I personally don't think there will be a huge number of offerings. But I do think that we should be aware that that could happen and I think we'd better be prepared for that."
Thursday's meeting came eight days after Gov. Mark Dayton transferred supervision of the health exchange to Schowalter's agency from the Department of Commerce. Business and insurance interests had lobbied for the removal of Commerce Commissioner Michael Rothman, saying the process so far lacked transparency, according to media reports.
But Rothman, who also attended Thursday's meeting, defended the process.
"All of these meetings have been public meetings," he said. "We've invited public participation. All of the documents have been put out there."
Phil Norrgard, director of human services for the Fond du Lac Band and a task force member, was host to the meeting. It was to have taken place in late June, but that session was rescheduled because of the June 19-20 flood.
The U.S. Health and Human Services Department on Thursday announced a $42.5 million grant to the Minnesota Department of Commerce to aid development of the exchange. It's the fourth and biggest grant the state has received. Grants also were announced for Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky and Massachusetts. Every state except Alaska has received at least some grant money.
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