Study: State’s number of uninsured drops 40 percent

Published 10:26 am Thursday, June 12, 2014

By Christopher Snowbeck

Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

The first comprehensive look at how the federal Affordable Care Act has changed health insurance in Minnesota shows a 40 percent decline in the number of people lacking coverage between September and May.

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Released on Wednesday, the study from University of Minnesota researchers estimates that about 180,500 uninsured people found coverage during the time period, dropping the state’s uninsured rate from 8.2 percent to 4.9 percent.

In some ways, the coverage expansion is not surprising, because it came at a time when the federal health law created incentives and penalties designed to connect more people with health insurance.

But researchers said they were impressed by the magnitude of change.

Critics of the state’s MNsure health insurance exchange have repeatedly questioned whether the law is having its expected impact on the uninsured rate in Minnesota, where a balky MNsure website and overwhelmed call center made it difficult for many to get coverage.

In January 2013, state officials projected that by 2016 the number of Minnesotans lacking coverage would be cut by between 298,000 and 340,000. So, the figures released Wednesday suggest the state is more than halfway to the goal.

“What this shows is that we’re squarely on track,” said Scott Leitz, chief executive officer of MNsure.

“We saw for decades the uninsured rate hover between 7 percent and 9 percent. And it’s now below 5 percent. This is the first time we’ve ever made a huge dent in the uninsured number.”

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, who pushed for the creation of MNsure, cheered the study’s findings.

“Today’s report demonstrates that health reform in Minnesota is headed in the right direction,” Dayton said in a statement.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said in a statement: “In their partisan attacks on MNsure and the Affordable Care Act, Republicans asked time and time again if the uninsured rate is going down. Today we have a clear answer that yes, MNsure is making a huge difference.”

But Republicans said the report doesn’t specify whether the decline can be attributed to MNsure or other factors.

To the extent the reduction came from people enrolling in the state’s Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare insurance programs, the state “didn’t need MNsure at all,” said state Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake.

Noting that the state has won more than $150 million in federal grants to launch MNsure, Benson asked: “Is it worth it?”

Starting this year, the Affordable Care Act will require almost all Americans to have health insurance or pay a tax penalty.

The law also expands eligibility in many state Medicaid programs and offers tax credits for many to buy coverage from private insurance companies.