The Free Press of Mankato, Aug. 7
MNsure plan heads in right direction
As Minnesota embarks on its plan to open the state health insurance exchange Oct. 1, public buy-in will be key to its success and that buy-in will be driven by the quantity and quality of information the public is able to acquire.
So the recent push to offer information on health insurance plans slated to be offered on the state's insurance exchange a month or so earlier than planned stands as a step in the right direction.
At the end of July, the Minnesota departments of commerce and health asked the health insurance plans participating in the health exchange to provide information on their plans, including pricing information about a month before the exchange is expected to be open for business.
Officials say providing the information a month before people can purchase plans simply makes sense and gives people and small businesses a little more time to study hundreds of products to be offered on the exchange.
Insurance brokers, legislators and consumers have been asking for more information on the plans and complaining that there is too little information being provided ahead of the exchange being open for business, according to a report in Politics in Minnesota.
But the commerce department said state law prevented it from providing information on the plans, including pricing information, until the "effective date" of the plans, according to the PIM report. So the commerce department sent letters to the nine plans that will be offering some 400 products requesting they make the effective date Sept. 6.
Commissioners of health and commerce wrote to the plans saying the request to release details earlier is "in the public interest."
Four of the plans contacted by PIM seemed to suggest they were willing to comply with the request for earlier release given certain caveats. UCare said it supported early release if all plans move up the approval date so as to create a sort of level playing field it seems. It favored release of rates that all had been "reviewed, approved and networked" by the Commerce Department.
HealthPartners supported release after health department had "completed approval of all products to be offered in 2014."
Blue Cross Blue Shield seemed so suggest it too would be willing to comply if all plans released in September did not change by the opening of the exchange in October.
Medica was needing to "dig into the details" before it responded to the request for early information, according to the PIM report.
Most of the responses seem measured and few of the plans seemed willing to outright reject the early release of information.
If some don't comply with early release, we think it's to their own disadvantage and that of potential customers. Early release of the information shouldn't be really wrought with controversy.
With millions of dollars and new customers at stake in the new health exchanges, the health plans concerns about a level playing field are reasonable. And if the commerce department hasn't officially approved some products or plans for sale Oct. 1, it seems it would be reasonable they do so before the September release. That only benefits consumers. Would anyone buy a plan that had a "pending approval" attached to it?
Still, these kinds of requests for consumer information seem to be at the heart of what exchanges were all about. So they are a step in the right direction. We'd be troubled by a bureaucracy hampering fair and balanced release of plan and rate information to the detriment of consumers.
Clear and concise information on health insurance plans should be the standard for the new exchanges. The public/private partnership that will make them work should see that as their first and most important charge.
The Star Tribune of Minneapolis, Aug. 12
New Minnesota law helps family caregivers
Rick Hansen was a state employee some years ago whose good health had allowed him to accrue a number of unused "sick days." But when he wanted to use that time to take his ailing mother to the doctor, his request was denied. "Sick time" was for his own medical needs or those of his dependent children — no one else, he was told.
As state Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, he set out to change that response. The bill he sponsored to expand the use of accrued sick time for family care became law on Aug. 1. Accrued "sick days" provided by a Minnesota employer of 20 or more workers can now be used to care for the medical needs of a child of any age or a spouse, sibling, parent, grandparent or stepparent.
Hansen's first stab at expanding the use of sick days for family caregiving met with then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto in 2009, he said last week. It took four years to revive the bill. When he did, he was pleased to find that support for the notion had crossed the partisan aisle sufficiently to win 99 of 134 votes in the House and an ample majority in the Senate.
We take that change as recognition that an economy that depends on both men and women to work outside the home also has to allow those workers a reasonable opportunity to meet their family obligations. Two-earner families have been the American norm for more than four decades. But too many employment practices are still grounded in a tacit assumption that employees' families include a nonworking adult who can relieve paid workers of caregiving responsibilities. That outdated thinking must end.
It's also the latest evidence of the influence of the large baby boomer generation on the institutions they touch, including employment. State sick leave law was amended to allow for the care of dependent children two decades ago, when employed boomer parents were struggling to care for sick young children.
Many in that same generational cohort are today in their late 50s and early 60s, and are helping elderly parents cope with increasing frailty. The extent of that obligation was analyzed in a recent AARP report, "Keeping Up with the Times: Supporting Family Caregivers with Workplace Leave Policies." It found that nearly two-thirds of workers between ages 45 and 74 have caregiving responsibilities for an adult relative, and that nearly half of the nation's employees who took time off from work to care for an elderly relative lost income in doing so.
That suggests that without more workplace support for caregiving, the extent of the help that younger family members can provide their elders is limited. When families can't step in, caregiving costs can fall on taxpayers. That reality, combined with the growth in the elderly population that's forecast for the next three decades, ought to make an impression on employers who want to keep tax burdens in check.
While Minnesota's new sick leave requirement is a step in the right direction, it's a modest one. According to Hansen, it will affect only about a third of the state's employees, those whose employers make a distinction between sick leave, vacations and holidays. Many of the state's employers now combine and cap those options as "paid time off." Those employers will be unaffected by this change.
Further, the new state law doesn't require more employers to offer paid sick leave. That benefit is standard in the rest of the industrialized world. It warrants renewed consideration in this country as evidence mounts that keeping people in the workforce past the traditional retirement age brings advantages to both workers and the economy.
As AARP, the state's largest senior lobby, hailed the change in sick leave that went into effect last week, Hansen acknowledged its limitations. But he said he has received thanks from a number of Minnesotans who say that for them and their families, the change makes a big difference. That response should lead lawmakers and employers to ask what more can be done so that work and family life are not an "either/or" proposition. This hardworking, family-loving state should lead the nation in "both/and" workplace policies.
The Forum of Fargo, N.D., Aug. 10
US House delays farm bill
Political posturing about who or what is delaying action on a much-needed farm bill came into sharper focus when the Republican speaker of the U.S. House refused to appoint members to a conference committee. John Boehner had every chance to do what the Senate wisely did, but he declined. The House shut down for the August vacation, and any hope of farm bill conference committee negotiations evaporated.
So, by any reasonable assessment, it indeed is the intransigence of House Republicans that is stalling progress on a new farm bill. By contrast, the Senate named conferees, including Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Max Baucus, D-Mont. They were ready to go to work on farm bill negotiations during the congressional break, but they can't because House leadership declined to participate. Had Boehner done the right thing, it's almost certain Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., would have been named to the panel, and possibly Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. Peterson is the leading farm policy expert in Congress. By virtue of his years of public service in his state, Cramer has a deep understanding of production agriculture.
The conference committee process is essential for the farm bill. There are big differences among congressmen and senators on major provisions of the legislation. Disagreement over how much to cut the food stamp program, for example, requires compromise. Concern about certain farm support payments divides Congress, also. But no progress can be made without House and Senate conferees meeting to find paths to compromise. Of course, that can't happen without participation by House conferees.
Because House Republicans went home without acting on a farm bill conference committee, it looks like there will be no farm bill this year. That means producers, ag lenders, agri-business people and rural economies will have to deal with uncertainty. Will the current farm bill be extended? Will farm supports revert to the 1949 base farm bill, and result in guaranteed retail chaos? What's the future of crop insurance? The sugar title? The school lunch program?
Make no mistake about it. House Republicans are to blame for the farm bill stall. That's not a political conclusion. It's a statement of fact.