ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — Minnesotans who use the state’s health exchange to buy medical insurance are in for some sticker shock.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce announced Thursday monthly premium rates for MNsure users ranging from 14 percent to a whopping 49 percent.

“Even though Minnesota rates remain among the nation’s lowest, the rate increases by the insurance companies are unacceptably high,” said Minnesota Department of Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman, whose department approved the rate hike request from state-based health care insurance companies.

The biggest impact may be on Minnesotans who buy their health insurance through MNsure.

But MNsure CEO Allison O’Toole said consumers can soften the blow by shopping on the health exchange and using subsidies to lower their monthly bills.

“These tax credits immediately lower a consumer’s health insurance premium, acting like an instant discount off the monthly premium,” O’Toole said.

But Republican critics say the jaw-dropping rate hikes are a signal to abolish MNsure and join the federal health exchange HealthCare.gov.

“It’s time now that we take real action,” said Minnesota Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, “before one or two more years of huge rate increases that Minnesotans can’t afford. The time for action is now.”

But MNsure strongly disputes that abolishing the state health care exchange and joining the federal exchange would make any difference.

“The fact of the matter is that today’s news would be the same regardless of whether Minnesotans use MNsure or HealthCare.gov to purchase their insurance,” O’Toole said.  “The Department of Commerce’s rate review process is an independent review and is not impacted by MNsure.”

State regulators said Minnesota insurance companies asked for even higher rates, based on rising medical costs.

In a written statement, an insurance industry trade group agreed the rate hikes are “painful” but said they are necessary.

“Any increase in your health insurance premium is painful,” said Jim Schowalter, president of the Minnesota Council of Health plans. “We’re feeling how the increasing cost of medical care directly affects our lives. It shows up in the premiums we pay every month. The prices charged need to cover the expenses coming in 2016. The Commerce Department review process made sure the rates were enough, but not too much, to pay expenses.”

But Rothman said he agrees with critics who say company salaries and profits are too high.

“Insurance companies should not accumulate excess profits on the backs of Minnesotans who need affordable health care,” he said.

Pat Kessler

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