Census survey finds number of state's uninsured holding steady

Minnesota's own data shows that the uninsured population has been growing in recent years.

Lynn Blewett, with the State Health Access Data Assistance Center, a research and policy center that works closely with the Minnesota Department of Health, tracks the numbers.

"In the last survey estimates in 2004, we did show a significant increase in the number of uninsured from 5.7 in 2001 to 7.4% in 2004. So I think we're all very interested to see if that increase is going to continue."

State researchers are in the field right now collecting new data. Blewett says even without it, there are signs that more Minnesotans are going without health insurance. For one, she says the number of employers offering health coverage is dropping.

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"There's a concern as the private sector is dropping coverage and the public sector is basically is staying stable that would indicate there would be an increase in the number of uninsured," she says.

Employer-sponsored health insurance is the foundation of the U.S. health care system. Blewett says the rate of employers offering coverage nationally has dropped from over 70% in the year 2000 to less than 60% in 2006. Blewett says Minnesota's rate of 67% is somewhat better, but it is also declining.

It appears that Minnesota employers have been able to withstand high health care costs a bit more than some other parts of the country in part due to a strong state economy, according to University of Minnesota health economist Jean Abraham. But she says that doesn't mean that Minnesotans with employer-sponsored health insurance aren't feeling the pinch.

"I think that we are seeing them pass more of the cost on to workers in the form of higher out-of-pocket contributions that employees are required to make. And where we are seeing some action is respect to small employers. They have been much more prone to drop coverage."

At the same time it's getting tougher for state programs to pick up the tab. Abraham's colleague, U of M health economist Steve Parente, points to the recent debate in Congress over funding the State Children's Health Insurance Program or SCHIP. Many states have maxed out their SCHIP enrollment and have asked for more federal money to add more uninsured kids to the program, according to Parente. The Bush Administration has opposed expanding the plan.

Parente says the new national Census figures will make that policy position more challenging.

"Politically what's interesting is that there's a huge argument or debate going on about children's coverage for those under 18, particularly those that are vulnerable. And these statistics showing that the number of kids without insurance is increasing is going to play quite well into a lot of people's hands politically," he says. That could be the case in Minnesota too.

Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, says the growing number of uninsured kids in the nation and in Minnesota is troubling. Last session lawmakers approved extending state subsidized MinnesotaCare insurance to an additional 30,000 Minnesota kids. But she says that won't be enough to keep ahead of the insurance problem.

But Berglin is also optimistic.

"The momentum for change is here in Minnesota now. Even the Governor has a commission going. The business community is concerned. The not-for-profit community is concerned. The medical community is concerned. And we really need to galvanize all that concern and get ourselves moving in the right direction."

Berglin says Minnesota lawmakers are closer than any other state when it comes to solving its uninsured problem, because it has the fewest people who are uninsured. Berglin and other Minnesota lawmakers have been meeting this summer to work out details on a plan to extend health coverage to everyone by 2011.