Minnesota’s low uninsured rate feels more like 100 percent for some folks

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The good news? Minnesota has a low percentage of uninsured. The bad news? That’s still 475,000 people without insurance.

Minnesota continues to rank high in the number of Minnesotans who have health insurance, and the state is tied with Hawaii, Iowa, Wisconsin and Maine for having the lowest percentage of uninsured citizens, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released this week.

The bad news? The number of uninsured Americans has grown from 44.8 million (15.3 percent of the population) in 2005 to 47 million (15.8 percent) in 2006. While Minnesota may have lower numbers than most states, the comparison means little when numbers are so high. Minnesota had 475,000 residents, or 9.2 percent of the population, who were not covered by health insurance “at any time during the year,” according to census data. That figure is up from 431,000 in 2005 and from 397,000 (7.9 percent of the population) five years ago. And it does not include those who have had partial coverage.

While some Minnesota media celebrate our high rankings, some Minnesotans are concerned for their health, their family’s health and their finances as the struggle to find affordable health insurance in a system where employment-based benefits are becoming less common.

“You have employers who are not offering coverage. You have employers who offer coverage whose workers don’t take it up, and then you have new jobs being added that don’t have benefits to begin with,” Alwyn Cassil of the Center for Studying Health System Change told the Pioneer Press.

And the high costs of health care have given rise to a growth industry in consumer health-care loans, according to Thursday’s New York Times. “As more and more of the costs of care are shifted to consumers, people are going to need more credit,” said Red Gillen, a senior analyst at Celent, an insurance and banking research firm. “They are still going to need health care.”

Many Minnesotans, such as Kristeen Giese, Jay Dorsey and Christine Brenner, are feeling the pinch when it comes to health care.

“I have spent the last two years for the most part uninsured,” said Kristeen Giese of Mankato, who has just finished graduate school. “This has been a very scary time for me.” Griese, who suffers from two chronic conditions, has been bounced between different insurance plans and no insurance.

When she left her full-time job to continue her studies, the COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act health-care continuation) payments proved to be too much. “I found myself between a rock and hard place because even though I could get student health-care packages, they did not provide me with the coverage I would need.” Griese is asthmatic and has Type 2 diabetes, and her required prescriptions cost more than $200 a month. Under student insurance at Mankato State University, the prescription cap is $500 for the entire year.

“Not only have I sacrificed financially to attend school but I have now accumulated enough debt that I don’t ever foresee an end to it due to student loans to pay for my education. All this so I could have a better job, which I still have yet to find, but I also had to risk my personal health by not having insurance as well,” she said.

Griese said just finding insurance that would cover her was extremely complicated. After finding out that the student insurance would not be enough, she applied for MinnesotaCare. However, under MinnesotaCare she had to be without insurance for three months. After being on MinnesotaCare for several months, she found seasonal summer work that offered benefits, which ended her eligibility for MinnesotaCare. When that job ended, she was back to being uninsured and faced another three months before MinnesotaCare would kick in again. She decided the struggle wasn’t worth it anymore. “I was so frustrated that I just did not even bother to fill out the extremely huge and personally invasive forms. I felt beat up by the whole insurance rumba!” she said.

“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful or wish for others to feel sorry for me, as I know there are many many more people in the world who are in worse situations then I am,” she said. “I just want to make others aware that something as simple of having health care is not something simple. It can be life-changing, and we all should try to improve this broken, messed-up system.”

Jay Dorsey, 34, of Minneapolis hasn’t had health insurance since losing his job as a graphic designer a couple years ago. The tight job market for graphic designers meant he has had to seek other work such as several jobs in manufacturing and as a personal assistant. None of those jobs offered anything more than a flexible spending health account. Dorsey is currently unemployed.

Dorsey has only one prescription, which he says is inexpensive, and that “luckily, nothing bad has happened” to his health during the last two years. “It weighs heavy on your mind should something serious or unexpected come up,” he said of the lack of insurance.

Christine Brenner of Mankato asked me to use a pseudonym for our interview. Her husband has been unemployed since May, and they have been uninsured since. “I’ve felt a little shame not having coverage, but I guess a lot of it was self-induced since we didn’t seek out independent coverage.” Christine is a freelance writer.

The couple, in their mid-30s, decided to chance it and hoped no health problems surfaced as her husband looked for another job. “We were risking it because we heard coverage was very expensive. And honestly, I don’t even know how to go about getting independent coverage,” she said. “I didn’t know where to start, so I just never started. We probably could have done COBRA from his last job, but we never … looked into it.”

They don’t have any serious health issues, but she has three prescriptions. Under previous coverage, she would pay $10 to $20 for each prescription, but now they cost $50 to $110 without coverage. “The whole thing is kind of weird. When he was working, we had lots of money but cheap prescriptions. Then when he hasn’t been working, we had little money and expensive prescriptions,” she said.

Though not having to pay for a health insurance premium somewhat offset the increased cost of medicine, she used cost-cutting strategies that could have affected her health. “For two of the prescriptions, I started taking them on alternating days instead of every day, to stretch them out. I didn’t appear to have any side effects from this.”

The couple will have insurance this fall as her husband has found employment with benefits. “We’ve been fortunate that nothing bad happened to us these past four months. We’re looking forward to having coverage,” she said.