- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - While Minnesota residents rushed to beat Thursday’s deadline to buy health insurance effective next month, there was little assurance that state officials would reach a deal to blunt the massive premium hikes looming over the individual market for 2017.

Those cost increases have been a major focus of Minnesota lawmakers for months, especially for shoppers who make too much to receive federal subsidies. Premiums are set to rise between 50 percent and 67 percent next year for residents who aren’t covered by employers or through public programs.

But key negotiators showed little sign they would meet Gov. Mark Dayton’s Thursday deadline to approve a special session deal that would extend rebates to offset costs while also reviving packages of tax cuts and public construction packages that faltered at the Legislature earlier this year. Those top lawmakers weren’t even at the Capitol.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and the top House Republicans, Speaker Kurt Daudt and Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, flew to the U.S. Virgin Islands earlier this week for a legislative leaders conference slated to last through Friday. A spokeswoman for Bakk said the National Conference of State Legislatures had covered all attendees’ costs and that the negotiations were ongoing, though remotely.

But back in St. Paul, it was all blame game.

“After months of negotiating and good-faith meetings with Gov. Dayton and House Republicans it has become clear to me and my DFL colleagues that House Republicans do not want a special session and are willing to leave thousands of Minnesotans in serious need of premium relief, to suffer drastically high premiums,” Bakk said in a Thursday news release.

Daudt faulted Dayton for the standstill, calling the governor’s proposed alterations to a tax relief package and public works bill “a setback to a solution all sides can accept.” Daudt said Dayton peppered the construction package with his own favored projects while stripping the tax bill of other, important measures.

Dayton has pushed legislative leaders to agree to an agenda this week, with the hope of holding a special session on Tuesday. He singled out Daudt’s absence Thursday, and suggested that lawmakers should abandon the tax and construction bills if they can’t find an agreement and instead focus solely on the health care cost fix.

The anxiety about higher costs and questions about access have driven signups on MNsure, the state’s health insurance exchange, to record levels. Roughly 44,000 had signed up as of Wednesday - more than twice as many registrations as the same point last year.

Shoppers looking for coverage effective with the start of the New Year have until midnight to buy a plan. Open enrollment lasts through January.

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