Employers cover fewer workers with health insurance, survey finds


The U.S. Census Bureau has released the results of a survey showing employer-provided health care coverage is falling both nationally and in Minnesota.

The numbers, based on the bureau’s Current Population Survey for 2008, underscore the need for President Obama and Congress to enact reform that both expands the number of insured and protects those who have insurance from losing it, health care advocates say.

In Minnesota, 8.5 percent of people were uninsured in 2007-08, or about one in 12 Minnesotans. Nationally, 15.4 percent of Americans – about 46 million people – lacked health insurance in 2008.

Although the percentage of uninsured did not change from the previous year, the percentage of Minnesotans with employer-provided coverage did not. It fell to 71 percent, down from 77 percent in 2000-01.

How can the rate of uninsured hold steady as the percentage of Minnesotans covered by their employers’ health plans falls? Christina Wessel, deputy director of the Minnesota Budget Project, said state agencies have stepped up to fill most of that gap.

But deep cuts to state services – the result of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s refusal to negotiate a budget with the Minnesota Legislature last spring – and a deepening economic recession threaten to undermine that safety net.

“The overall number of insured in Minnesota has remained pretty stable because the public sector has picked up the slack,” Wessel said. “But the state’s health and human services budget took quite a beating this year – a total of nearly $1.6 billion in reductions between budget cuts, line-item vetoes, unallotments and loss of federal funds.

“That safety net is disappearing fast.”

Worse news coming?
Wessel also said numbers from the Census Bureau’s 2008 survey do not reflect people who lost their health insurance last year as a result of the recession. In order to count as uninsured in the survey, an individual must be without coverage for the entire year, she said.

“These results do not reflect those who may have lost insurance at some point in 2008 as the recession deepened,” Wessel said. “In other words, expect the numbers to look worse next year.”

Racial, age disparities
The census study also revealed significant disparities in health insurance coverage among racial, ethnic and age groups nationwide.

Both the Hispanic and black populations in the U.S. face significantly higher uninsured rates. About 31 percent of Hispanics and 19 percent of blacks were without health insurance in 2008, while 11 percent of non-Hispanic whites were uninsured.

Less than 2 percent of individuals over age 65 were uninsured in 2008, but 10 percent of children under 18 went without coverage for the entire year.

“It’s good that our nation is doing such a successful job of providing care for people in the later years,” Wessel said. “Now we need to make sure we are doing the same job of caring for them in those critical early years.”

Survey says poverty’s up
The survey raises red flags beyond its health care findings, revealing more statistical proof that the Great Recession is hitting working families especially hard.

The nation’s official poverty rate increased from 12.5 to 13.2 percent between 2007 and 2008. It’s the first statistically significant increase since 2004 and the highest poverty rate on record since 1997.

Complete state-level statistics on poverty will be made available Sept. 22, but initial data, according to Wessel, shows Minnesota’s median income fell along with the nation’s, and the state’s poverty rate is on the rise.

“We never really recovered from the 2001 recession before we found ourselves falling into an even deeper recession. The consequences for Minnesota’s families – and our state budget – have been dramatic,” Wessel said.

“The answer, however, isn’t to continue to slash services that help those that are losing health insurance or falling into poverty. What we need is real health care reform and more investments in people at the state and federal level. The trends behind these numbers mean that they aren’t just the result of the recession; they reveal more fundamental troubles that need urgent action.”

Michael Moore edits The Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. Learn more at www.stpaulunions.org

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