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Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton could be saving the state hundreds of millions with one key agreement made recently. Dayton announced the state’s four large HMOs, which administer the state’s health care plans, have agreed to cap their 2011 profits and give back excess.

Had that same agreement been in place last year, the state estimates Minnesota would have received $85 million in give-backs.

The timing on the agreement couldn’t have been better as legislators were bickering about how to change state law, and leaning on the federal government to grant waivers.

As Republicans and Democrats wrestled and fought, Dayton coolly and without much fanfare helped come up with a partial solution to the area of the state budget that is growing most quickly.

This kind of approach is beginning to distinguish the governor as a leader who often rises above the political fray to get real change accomplished.

This is the third recent example of innovative changes he’s helped to usher; remember he also changed teacher licensure and the state’s permitting process for businesses, making it easier to get government approval.

This was a good plan because of the secrecy that envelopes the HMOs. Right now, the state sends money to the health care managers, but doesn’t have a very good handle on how the money gets spent.

Profits, accounting and public documents are tightly held because the HMOs contend opening the books might be tantamount to trade secrets.

But this has left Minnesotans in the dark. Instead, they have to simply trust that all the money is being spent wisely. There is no transparency.

While this new agreement doesn’t necessarily throw open the HMOs’ books, it does ensure that any profit above 1 percent is returned.

HMOs shouldn’t have to run at a loss, but this also helps ensure they’re not getting rich off the state’s poorest, while Minnesota’s budget goes in the tank.