This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes MPR News, and Kaiser Health News.
St. Paul, Minn. — For more than a year, Minnesotans have heard about health insurance exchanges. They are a cornerstone of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and, in Minnesota, at the heart of a partisan brawl between Gov. Mark Dayton and some Republican leaders.
Until now, an insurance exchange in Minnesota has been just an abstract idea. But now, prototypes for public review are available on the state Commerce Department's website.
The state-based exchanges will allow consumers to shop for health coverage, compare health plans, and guide eligible residents through the process of applying for public subsidies.
Monday afternoon, four companies, including Ceridian, Deloitte Consulting, GetInsured.com, and Curam Software put links to exchange prototypes on the Minnesota Commerce Department website. A fifth company, Maximus/Connecture Alliance offered videos of how the exchange would work.
The prototypes are a kind of public audition for the companies, which are vying for the contract to build the state's exchange or to produce at least a part of the exchange, such as the section aimed at small businesses.
While individuals and small businesses won't be able to use an exchange until January 2014, Minnesota and other states are on deadline to get planning underway. States must show they can operate an exchange in early 2013. The federal government will operate the exchange for any states that fail to clear that hurdle.
Some of the Minnesota prototypes on display now resemble online travel sites such as Expedia or Travelocity where consumers can comparison shop. But instead of comparing flights, residents compare the cost and coverage of different health plans.
The sites don't allow the user to drill down for specific information, such as how much a knee replacement might cost out of pocket. However, several sites do allow the user to compare plans based on a person's age, gender and health habits — such as smoking, for instance — and list them side by side.
One site allows the user to compare plans by looking specifically at the likely cost for child birth, breast cancer treatment, and diabetes care.
Bear in mind that comparing flight travel information is easier for an online site to process than health insurance.
Like filling out health insurance forms, there's more information needed to buy a policy than just the days you want the service. Some of the prototypes require a process of gathering information about the individual or business before the user can even get to compare plans.
Putting the prototypes up for public review is a great idea, said Geoff Bartsh of Medica. He said it's important to evaluate whether consumers find the prototypes valuable. But the real heavy lifting for these companies, he said, will be making the prototypes work with all the systems involved.
"I think the true test of them is going to be how they will actually make those functions happen within the state agencies, between state agencies, and federal agencies," Bartsh said.
The prototypes will be up until the end of January 2012, but in the process to select a final vendor, the state will take feedback until Dec. 21, 2011.