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Growing insurance premiums frustrate farmers, self-employed

ST. PAUL -- Loni Kemp is an example of what farmers and other self-employed Minnesotans face: an ever-increasing health insurance bill and no way to get around it.

ST. PAUL -- Loni Kemp is an example of what farmers and other self-employed Minnesotans face: an ever-increasing health insurance bill and no way to get around it.

The 63-year-old consultant, who lives in southeast Minnesota's Canton, said that in 2015 she and her husband had a family insurance plan costing $18,000 annually.

"For 2016, we were shocked at the new rates, and so we kept my husband’s coverage, which rose to $14,000 a year, and significantly downgraded my policy to include an enormous deductible and annual premium of $10,000," Kemp said. "Paying $24,000 a year for health insurance while praying no one gets really sick? That is a tough pill to swallow."

The pill is about to get bigger. State insurance regulators Friday, Sept. 30, said individual insurance policies would cost 50 percent to 67 percent for 2017.

While saying that is too much of an increase and not fair to the state's middle class, Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said there is nothing he can do. He said that his department does not have the power to order insurance companies to lower rates as long as they meet state and federal rules.

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Short of major insurance law reform, Rothman does not see things getting better.

"I really feel for younger families facing this problem, with no end in sight," Kemp said.

Rothman blames some of the high-premium problem on Blue Cross Blue Shield, which all but pulled out of the individual health insurance market this fall when it sent letters to 103,000 Minnesotans -- 43 percent of all those who buy individual policies -- that it no longer will sell most of those policies.

That upset farmers, many of whom long have carried Blue Cross.

Mark Berle, 55, a Gibbon-area farmer in south-central Minnesota, pays $550 a month for insurance this year, with a $6,500 deductible. His wife pays the same.

Berle said a 2017 rate increase will hurt more than the couple, it will hurt the economy.

"If you give farmers a break, they will spend it," he said. "There are always things you need to spend money on. But when you put $20,000 in an envelope and send it to an insurance company, it’s gone."

State insurance officials have heard that message from farmers loud and clear.

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Human Services Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper spent some of the first week of August at FarmFest, southwest Minnesota's all-things-agriculture show. The big topic in the Human Services Department's first-ever Farmfest booth was the Blue Cross decision.

"People are getting scary letters from their insurance company saying, 'We aren't going to provide you coverage anymore,'" she said, adding that she does not blame them for being concerned.

Piper and CEO Allison O'Toole of MNsure, the state's web-based insurance sales site, said many people forced to pay the higher premiums could get financial breaks by signing up on MNsure. Piper said some may discover on MNsure they are eligible for the state-subsidized MinnesotaCare insurance program.

O'Toole said 100,000 Minnesotans are eligible for tax credits that would lower insurance costs when they use MNsure. The tax credits may make up for some of the cost of an increase or actually cut insurance costs, she said.

The only way to know what breaks are available is visiting MNsure.org. O'Toole said that even though insurance policies will not be available for purchase for another month, the Website features a calculator that can estimate how much government assistance is available.

O'Toole said many people will save at least $200 a month with the credits.

"I would really encourage people to check MNsure out again," Piper said, even though it was plagued with troubles when it launched three years ago.

Related Topics: AGRICULTUREHEALTH
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