the second opinion

Exchange Watch: Minnesota

Beware the bearers of good tidings: A selectively-told tale from the feds' PR folks
September 10, 2013

And so it came to pass that insurance companies in the North Country delivered for state residents some very low premiums for policies to be sold in Minnesota’s insurance exchange (known as MNsure). State Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman announced last week that Minnesota has the lowest average rates for individuals and families compared to other states that have revealed the cost of their plans. The cheapest plan offering the least coverage costs only $90.59 for a 25-year-old living in the Twin Cities.

Joanne Peters, the National Press Secretary for Health Care, who works for the US Department of Health and Human Services, subsequently sent to selected journos one of her periodic “ICYMI” messages/press releases touting some aspect of Obamacare and featuring news stories that offer a positive spin on the health law. Peters told recipients:

All–wanted to make sure you had seen the news that Minnesota has released their premium information today, which appear to be lowest premiums of those publicly released so far by states. A bronze plan for a 25-year-old will be as low as $90.59. We’re seeing the same thing in Minnesota that we have been seeing in state after state, that transparency and competition in the marketplace are leading to premiums that are lower than expected.

Peters is one to talk about transparency. She didn’t mention that the cheap bronze policy premium covers only 60 percent of one’s medical care, leaving the 25-year-old to pay the rest if he or she gets sick. Nor did she note whether the 25-year-old might have just a small number of doctors and hospitals to choose from–now all too typical of policies with rock-bottom premiums.

To bolster her rock bottom exchange prices narrative, Peters pasted into her message an excerpt of a story aired last Friday on Minnesota Public Radio (a very similar version also appeared on MPR’s website). The story excerpt also did not include additional information that might throw cold water on the “low premiums” story line–cost-sharing or the potential for limited doctor choice. (Neither were these drawbacks mentioned on the Kaiser Health News website, which also excerpted the MPR story, although one paragraph excerpted by Peters and Kaiser did report that policies sold to small employers with five workers ranged from $1,127 or $13,524 annually for employees earning an average wage of $20,000 to $1,986 or almost $24,000 a year for those earning $50,000 or more. Sticker shock, no?)

Did reporters at Minnesota Public Radio do half-baked journalism? Clicking through to the full MPR story (a link to which was, at least, provided in Peters’s ICYMI message/press release), I discovered that reporters Elizabeth Stawicki and Catharine Richert had actually produced a good story that was quite complete with context and information for their listeners. Stawicki, who was on air, touched most of the hot spots. She reported that the cheaper $90.59 premium was for “basic coverage.” It might have been good to explain what that meant, but perhaps in a future piece.

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Stawicki also tempered the hoopla over the low premiums by noting that at least 30 states had yet to release their rates, and that most Minnesotans would still get their insurance through employers (which, I’d add, means these low rates are irrelevant to them). She interviewed University of Minnesota professor Jean Abraham who placed Minnesota insurance rates in context of rates elsewhere–they’re usually in the middle of the pack. In the website piece, Abraham said the low premiums “could be an attempt at getting market share.” Indeed, this may be happening elsewhere where low premiums have gotten rave reviews. The question is what happens next year and the next when companies actually know how many sick people they will have to insure and how many young healthy men buy coverage. That’s something for the tickler file.

MPR’s piece featured comments from Terry Hill, executive director of the National Rural Health Resource Center in Duluth, who worried that people in rural areas will have few choices of healthcare providers. He told listeners big health systems were partnering with insurance companies and “rural clinics and their networks are not part of this.” As for the high rates for small employers, Stawicki reported that very few carriers have so far chosen to sell in this market. So much for competition! Finally, she tackled the question that’s been so botched by regulators and the media this year: Will the new rates be lower than what people are paying now? As we’ve reported many times, you can’t make that comparison because the policies are not the same. The new ones have more comprehensive benefits. Stawicki reported “state officials say it’s impossible to make such a comparison.” Hurray for them (and for Stawicki for including it)! That was a refreshing change from misleading pronouncements from other states.

All in all, Minnesota Public Radio gets an A for its work (the online piece included a handy “explainer” for gold, silver, and bronze insurance plans); Kaiser gets a C; and the Department of Health and Human Services–well, a press release is just that, a press release, to be taken with a grain of salt.

Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team.

Related content:
Exchange Watch: California Dreaming

Exchange Watch: The ongoing game of Spin the Rates

Exchange Watch: Are New Yorkers getting a bargain?

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for CJR's Covering the Health Care Fight. She also blogs for Health News Review and the Center for Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.