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Minnesota regulators are asking health insurers to voluntarily release their premium rates for the state's new insurance exchange several weeks earlier than required by law, saying that the public needs more time to prepare.

In a joint bulletin sent out Friday, Department of Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman and Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Edward Ehlinger asked the insurance companies to release the rates on Sept. 6, or on a date when all rates have been approved by the state. Otherwise, consumers won't know the details of the coverage plans until open enrollment begins on Oct. 1.

The new insurance exchange — called MNsure exchange — is a marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act that will be used as the gateway for some 1.3 million Minnesotans to buy insurance. The exchange is intended to help small businesses and those not covered under workplace health plans to find and compare coverage plans. It's also the only place where consumers can get tax credits to help lower premium costs.

Moving the date gives consumers more time to understand their choices, the state commissioners said in their release to insurers.

"We believe and hope the plans will be receptive," Rothman told the Star Tribune. "The most important thing is the public interest and ­transparency."

State law dictates that rates be kept private until insurance products are sold on the market, a decades-old statute that insurance carriers say protects them from being undercut by a competitor at the last minute.

But calls for greater transparency on the rates have grown more persistent in recent weeks. State and ­federal lawmakers, consumer groups and members of the MNsure executive board have questioned why such important consumer information should remain under wraps when the new marketplace is meant to foster greater competition.

Officials at most of Minnesota's largest health plans indicated that they don't oppose the release so long as everyone's data is released at once.

"We're certainly open to exploring an early sharing of MNsure rates and product information, as long as there's consistency to the release — that everyone's rates have been reviewed and approved and ­networked," said UCare's Ghita Worcester.

Worcester noted that MNsure's call centers are scheduled to open on Sept. 3, and that it "seems like a reasonable thing" to release premium prices to consumers at a time when MNsure staff is in place to answer questions.

More lead time could help consumers feel less confused, said Scott Keefer of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, the state's ­largest insurer. "There's a lot of change happening as a result of health care reform," he said. "As long as there's a level playing field, and that it's timely and accurate, it makes sense" to share premium information.

In a statement, Medica said it supports the release "in concept," but still needs "to dig into the details before making a final determination on how we will respond."

Starting in 2014, insurers must accept all applicants and provide a broader range of benefits, including prescriptions, mental health care, maternity costs and dental care for children.

A handful of other states and the District of Columbia have already publicized premium rates on the new exchanges, prompting some insurers to drop their prices while others raised them.

As the Department of Commerce and health plans have faced pressure to release rates to the public, MNsure officials last week sought state approval to keep private certain creative details, such as the tagline, colors, characters and images private under the Minnesota Data Practices Act. Advocates of open records laws vowed to protest the move, which the state will decide before Aug. 22.

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335