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State officials discuss rural health care plans during Cloquet town hall

Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Tony Lourey (center) discusses the health care aspects of the state budget proposal to a full room Feb. 20 at the Carlton County Community Services Center. Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen (right) and Bryan Klabunde, vice president of Minnesota Farmers Union, joined him. Andee Erickson / Pine Journal

The morning after Gov. Tim Walz unveiled his budget proposal state officials held a town hall meeting in Cloquet to discuss how plans to improve health care access affect greater Minnesota.

Tony Lourey, Minnesota Department of Human Services commissioner, lauded the proposed plan he's helped design to create a buy-in product called "OneCare" for people on the individual insurance market.

With about 349,000 Minnesotans who don't have health insurance, Lourey said Wednesday morning at the Carlton County Community Services Center, OneCare's 90 percent actuarial value could provide a product for people who are driven out of the insurance market due to failing networks, high pharmaceutical prices as well as high co-pays and deductibles.

"We have a couple years before (OneCare) comes online and we want to partner with our health systems and providers across the state to figure out exactly what that looks like," Lourey said. "We will be able to provide better care to people. We will be able to find better coordinated care for people that need to use their insurance products."

In the individual insurance market Lourey said each product is designed with the hope that people who actually need to use the product will buy somebody else's insurance, and with OneCare, he wants to change that dynamic.

The buy-in product would have benefits similar to MinnesotaCare and will include dental, vision, mental health, chemical dependency and behavioral health benefits, but enrollees wouldn't have to fall under an income threshold like they do in the state-subsidized health insurance plan.

OneCare is just one aspect of the multi-pronged approach to health care that the Walz administration is calling "OneCare MN." Other prongs of OneCare MN include ensuring Minnesotans have buy-in products in regions where the individual market fails to provide them, better access to dental health care with a streamlined model for purchasing benefits and reduced prescription drug prices.

Lowering the cost of prescription drug prices requires making price negotiations between insurance companies transparent, and above the table, Lourey said.

"Insurance companies have all kinds of financial transactions," he said. "I'm in a seat where I get to see a lot of financial transactions, but I don't get to see those — nobody does; they're completely under the table. We don't know what they are, but we know they're driving the cost of drugs through the roof."

Health care for farmers

Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen and Bryan Klabunde, vice president of Minnesota Farmers Union, joined Lourey at the town hall to discuss difficulties farmers face when looking for affordable health care.

Many farmers have to get a job off the farm just to get on a decent health insurance plan, Petersen said, but he believes that having buy-in products available to farmers will offer them sustainable solutions.

"It's staggering to hear some of those farmers had to choose to farm full-time and work," he said. "They look at $25,000- to $30,000-a-year premiums and the average farm income last year was about $30,000."

Klabunde, on behalf of Minnesota Farmers Union, applauded Gov. Walz's health care-related recommendations to the budget.

"Minnesota farmers are facing several years with a depressed farm economy and low prices for our labor all across the state," Klabunde said. "We're all working hard and not getting a lot in return, the high cost of health care adds to this burden and it's unsustainable for family farmers."

Along with the economic stress of farming comes added mental health issues for many, Petersen said, which is why the budget includes a second mental health counselor for farmers and additional funds to expand the 24-hour hotline farmers can call for one-on-one counseling. Also included in Gov. Walz's budget is additional funding for two more farm advocates, in addition to the 10 already on board who help guide farmers through tough financial times.

Farmers struggling with financial problems, stress or mental health issues can call the Farm and Rural Helpline at 833-600-2670. The service is free and offers 24/7 confidential services.

Andee Erickson

Andee Erickson has been a reporter with the Pine Journal since November 2018. She studied journalism and geography at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, while working at the Leader-Telegram newspaper on weekends. She graduated in 2018. Erickson's from southern Minnesota, but started viewing the north as home after interning for the Duluth News Tribune in the summer of 2017.