The Republican critique of the president's health care overhaul law may have hit a wall in Minnesota, complicating the GOP's already long chances of picking up a Senate seat in the state.
Though the state’s health care exchange, MNsure, has hit a few snags in recent weeks, local Democrats still claim the program is an overall success — at least relative to other states. A University of Minnesota study credited the Affordable Care Act for dropping the state's uninsured numbers to roughly 5 percent, making it the one of the lowest in the country. Minnesota also touts the lowest premium rates and generally low health care costs.
Those statistics have made it more difficult for businessman Mike McFadden, the GOP's nominee, to challenge Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., for supporting the president’s signature health care law. Franken is the front-runner in the race, and independent polls show him with a small double-digit lead .
“The Republicans hope that the toxicity of the moniker Obamacare would lead to this kind of mob running against the Democrats has not happened. Voters are hearing different things,” said Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at University of Minnesota. “It’s turning out that Democrats have found strategies to fight to a draw, which in 2014 is probably the best they could hope for, at least on this issue.” Franken’s campaign has focused on the state’s achievements and the more popular aspects of the law, including a provision he helped craft that requires health insurers to spend at least 80 percent of premium dollars on services, as opposed to administrative overhead.
McFadden initially opposed that language as part of his position to repeal the health care law, but he later said he would consider keeping the policy when pressed on the issue in an August interview with WCCO-TV . In a recent debate, McFadden has said his major gripe with the health care law is that states can make better decisions than the White House.
"I believe the states are laboratories for experiment," he said in an Oct. 1 debate.
"If we allow the federal government to do it, our health care system will look like the VA, and I'm not going to allow that to happen."
Franken warned repealing the law could lead to greater frustrations, sending a divided Congress back to the drawing board.
“Do you think this Congress now, as gridlocked as it is, is actually going to come up with a health care plan with guarantees to cover pre-existing conditions and all the other stuff that we’ve seen?” Franken concluded in the debate.
To be sure, the rollout of the Minnesota health care exchange last October was as rocky as the Healthcare.gov launch. Software errors and technical glitches ultimately lead to the resignation of MNsure’s first executive director.
But things have been smoother for MNsure since then — at least until last month when Preferred One, the cheapest and largest provider that carried 53 percent of the state exchange’s commercial plans, withdrew from the exchange. Two weeks later, the Minnesota Commerce Department announced premium rates are expected to increase an average of 4.5 percent in 2015.
A Democratic strategist familiar with Senate races said though Democrats did not make the health care law a centerpiece of their campaigns, they were concerned those two events would cause their numbers drop.
Despite Republican attempts to tie those issues to the candidates, polls since then show Democrats maintaining or improving their leads in the state, the strategist said.
In surveys, Minnesotans mirror the nation’s discontent with the health care law; 44 percent said they consider MNsure "mostly a failure" in a September poll . However that has yet to sway their opinion in the Senate race. The same poll showed Franken’s support at 49 percent, a number that has not changed by much since then .
"I haven't seen it working," the strategist said. "The die is just so far cast."
McFadden and his supporters say Franken’s support of the health care law exemplifies the incumbent’s partisan slant and blame him for following the party line to bring a “Washington-based policy” to the state.
“A lot of things that we’ve seen MNsure, for lack of a better word, ‘solve’ were already things that our existing program could have done,” said John Rouleau, executive director of the right-leaning Minnesota Jobs Coalition “And things that MNsure has done, it hasn’t done that well.”
Franken has also been criticized for not pushing harder against a medical device tax included in the health care law, which affects the hundreds of medical device companies in the state, including Medtronic and St. Jude Medical. Franken, a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, says he worked with former Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus to cut the tax in half and has since advocated for repealing that part of the law.
Minnesotans disgruntled about the state’s health care program also may decide to place the blame on the governor’s desk instead of Franken’s.
McFadden’s argument requires voters to tie what’s happening in the state to what the federal government did, said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield. Meanwhile, the debate in the gubernatorial race about state management is gaining more traction, he said.
“At the end of the day, Mark Dayton is going to be held responsible for that, not Al Franken,” Schier said.
The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rates this race as Democrat Favored .
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