Thousands of Minnesotans who buy health insurance on their own are bracing for final word on whether their premiums will spike next year.

On Thursday, the Minnesota Department of Commerce is scheduled to release 2016 rates for shoppers who buy individual policies.

Four insurers that collectively cover most people in the market are seeking average increases of more than 20 percent each, including a proposed jump of more than 50 percent for about 179,000 people with coverage from Eagan-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota - the state's largest health insurer.

In ruling on the requests, regulators must walk a line between satisfying consumers who want low rates and insurers who say the business can't be sustained at current premium levels.

"We are dying here under the weight of insurance premiums," Kristi Nelson, 53, of Hastings, wrote Commerce Department officials in opposition to a possible rate increase. "It's like being dropped off a cliff every year when the new premiums come out."

The proposed rates apply to Minnesota's individual market, where about 6 percent of state residents bought coverage last year. That market has changed markedly with the federal Affordable Care Act.

The health law abolished exclusions for pre-existing conditions that health insurers previously used to control costs in the individual market. It also created new online marketplaces like Minnesota's MNsure exchange and extended subsidies to shoppers. Finally, the law called for public notice when health insurers seek rate increases in excess of 10 percent.

In June, the federal government released proposals for big average jumps in Minnesota not just from Blue Cross but also HealthPartners (23-24 percent), PreferredOne (49 percent) and UCare (12 percent). In July, UCare increased its proposed hike to 27 percent.

Medica changed its request this summer, too, and it is now seeking a 14 percent increase. The insurer's earlier proposal fell short of the threshold for disclosure.

"As more time goes on, you've got a fuller picture of the risk that you're managing," said Dannette Coleman, a senior vice president with the Minnetonka-based insurer.

Insurers say rate increases are needed because of big losses in the individual market. The Minnesota Council of Health Plans tabulated losses in excess of $300 million in 2014, although insurers expect to recover roughly half of that amount through financial safety nets in the health law.

Blue Cross says it lost $135 million in the individual market in 2014. Company spokesman Jim McManus said last week in a statement: "A larger membership in 2015 is translating into even larger losses."

In the past, proposed rate increases in Minnesota only became public once final rates were approved. With advance notice under the health law, Commerce Department officials this summer invited public comment and received about 50 written responses - almost all in opposition.

Employer health plans stable

Proposed premium jumps in the individual market contrast with findings from a national report last week that found premiums for people with employer health plans increased just 4 percent this year, continuing a decadelong period of relatively slow growth.

Premiums for employer groups are more stable because the market is much bigger, and it hasn't experienced as much change under the health law, said Jim Schowalter, chief executive at the Minnesota Council of Health Plans, a trade group for insurers. State law prevents insurers from taking money from the group market to subsidize individual health insurance premiums, Schowalter said.

Modeling that was completed for the state several years ago forecast that the individual market would grow to include 400,000 to 500,000 people by 2016, Schowalter said. But actual enrollment has fallen short - about 290,000 people at the end of last year - perhaps because many found coverage through the state's public health insurance programs.

"That has a big impact in not diluting the cost and not spreading the cost," he said. "It means higher rates." Plus, medical claims have swallowed a much bigger share of premium revenue, he said.

Between 2010 and 2013, health insurers paid out between 82 cents and 91 cents in medical claims for every dollar of premium revenue in the individual market, according to Commerce Department reports. In 2014, premium revenue in the market grew significantly - from about $710 million to nearly $1 billion - but insurers paid out just over $1 in medical claims for every dollar of premium revenue.

"Health care is more expensive in the individual market than expected," Schowalter said.