The Minnesota Senate passed the health insurance exchange bill that allows consumers to shop for coverage plans online as part of the enactment of the Affordable Care Act.
The House passed the bill on Thursday, and on Monday, the Senate voted 39 to 28 to pass it as well. Gov. Mark Dayton is set to sign it although no Republican lawmakers voted in favor of the bill.
For those who don't have health insurance, the passage marks the creation of a new opportunity because the state is one step closer to offering a tool that allows insurance carriers to compete for business.
There are already websites that allow consumers to shop and compare hotel prices, airfare and auto insurance rates -- but until now, there was no incentive for health insurance companies to go head-to-head for clients.
As a small business owner, Paul Dircz has been providing health insurance to his employees for 30 years. In that time, he's seen premiums double about once every decade.
"Our cost for insurance is now our second largest cost behind our payroll," he explained. "It's gone up astronomically and it's basically outside, been outside, of our control to do anything about it."
Yet, in the competitive field of courting software engineers, Dircz says skimping on health care isn't an option.
"We literally have to offer top-notch benefits or we aren't going to hire anybody," he said.
That's why he is glad that, starting in October, business owners and individuals alike will be able to log on to a website to compare insurance plans based on what is important to them -- from lower premiums to high deductibles and access to certain doctors.
"If you've shopped for airfare online and you want a certain schedule or a certain price or certain factors are more important than others to you, those will be factors that you'll be able to plug in," said Democratic Rep. Joe Atkins, of Inver Grove Heights.
The insurance exchange will be run by the state, which has until the end of March to create its own insurance option or risk having one run by the federal government.
"For a lot of reasons, we wanted to do a Minnesota version," Atkins said.
The insurance marketplace will cost about $50 million a year to operate; however, the state has already received more than $100 million in federal grants toward development.
The exchange, which should make its debut on Oct. 1, will group individuals and small businesses together to offer the kinds of rates normally reserved for large corporations.
Although it's too early to tell for sure, Dircz is already estimating that his company of 30 may save between 10 and 20 percent through the exchange.
"Companies of our type and size just don't get those kinds of benefits," he said. "As a result, we've seen very large increases in our insurance costs."
By 2016, as many as 1.3 million Minnesotans will get their health insurance through the exchange -- including 300,000 people who don't have or can't afford insurance.
Consumers who enroll in October will likely see their health coverage begin on Jan. 1, 2015.