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Insurers that sell Medicare Advantage health plans are pushing to extend the coverage into hundreds of new counties across the country next year, a competitive boost that's coming to Minnesota.

Minnetonka-based UnitedHealthcare is expanding its Medicare Advantage service area by more than 100 counties next year — an increase of about 6% — and much of the growth comes from Minnesota, where the company is expanding from nine to 43 counties.

A newcomer to Minnesota's Medicare Advantage market, Lasso Healthcare, is offering health plans in all of the state's 87 counties, according to materials from the Minnesota Board on Aging.

"The Medicare Advantage market in 2020 will have more plans [across the country] than we have ever seen in this market," said Gretchen Jacobson, associate director of the program on Medicare policy at the California-based Kaiser Family Foundation. "With many new insurers entering the market, and only one firm exiting — out of well over 100 firms — this seems to be a very lucrative, attractive market for insurers."

With Medicare Advantage health plans, beneficiaries opt for government benefits via private managed-care companies rather than the original Medicare program. While a growing number of seniors have been opting for Medicare Advantage, the majority of beneficiaries remain in original Medicare.

Open enrollment for Medicare Advantage plans and stand-alone Part D drug coverage started this week and runs through Dec. 7.

UnitedHealthcare is one of the nation's largest Medicare Advantage insurers. Some of its top rivals across the country also are expanding their service areas — Rhode Island-based Aetna is adding 264 counties, Indiana-based Anthem is adding 77 counties and Kentucky-based Humana is adding 29 counties.

Humana isn't adding new counties to its existing service area in Minnesota, but the insurer will start selling for 2020 a new Medicare Advantage HMO in parts of the Twin Cities metro. Minneapolis-based UCare is expanding a Medicare Advantage plan for people with disabilities who also qualify for Medicaid to dozens of new counties in Minnesota.

Bloomington-based HealthPartners is expanding the area for Medicare health plans it sells in Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota. It is status quo in Minnesota for the Medicare Advantage service area at Allina Health Aetna, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, HealthPartners and Medica, company officials said.

HealthPartners and Medica, however, are expanding the network of doctors and hospitals in their Medicare Advantage plans.

Minnesota's Medicare market underwent big changes going into 2019, since carriers had to stop selling Medicare Cost health plans across much of the state. The shift prompted a choice for consumers between Medicare Advantage plans and original Medicare, where consumers often buy Medicare Supplement policies known as "Medigap" plans.

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744