More Conn. Residents On Public Health Plans, Driven Partly By Unemployment

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The number of people in Connecticut who had health insurance through a private insurer, such as employer-based coverage, shrank, while those in public health plans, such as Medicaid, rose, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data.

The data, released Thursday, show that in the most recent survey a large percentage of the state’s population was still covered by private health plans, such as those offered by employers — 74.4 percent compared with 66 percent nationally. The percentage of uninsured in the state was lower than the national average, too, at 8.9 percent compared with 15.2 percent across the U.S.

The census estimates were based on surveys taken over a three-year period ending in 2010, compared with a three-year period ending in 2011.

Private health plan membership in Connecticut dropped by 47,618, to 2.62 million, while enrollment in public health coverage increased by 46,017, to 989,755.

The trend was similar in Connecticut’s neighboring states: 1.8 percent fewer residents had private health insurance in Connecticut; 1.7 percent in Massachusetts; 1.4 percent in New Jersey; 1.7 percent in New York and 1.6 percent in Rhode Island. Nationally, the number was 1.2 percent.

State Healthcare Advocate Victoria Veltri said people should be cautious about speculating what is driving the changes. It could be any of a number of factors — employers dropping coverage, higher premiums forcing low-income people into public plans, and layoffs forcing people out of employer-sponsored plans, are just a few possibilities.

The trend in health coverage away from private insurers and toward public health plans exacerbates what health insurers say is a cost shift. The reimbursement rates paid to hospitals and doctors by Medicaid and other public programs are lower than what private insurers pay. As more people shift to public plans, hospitals seek higher rates from private insurers, and that drives up premiums, said Keith Stover, a lobbyist and spokesman for the Connecticut Association of Health Plans, a trade group for health insurance companies.

“It’s almost like a downward spiral or a vortex,” Stover said. “Having more people on the public-insurance-program side is financially unsustainable. You almost couldn’t tax people enough to do it.”

Stover said the shift is cause for concern in a state that employs tens of thousands of people in the health insurance industry at companies such as Aetna, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Connecticut, Cigna, ConnectiCare and UnitedHealthcare.

Advocates for universal health care coverage see the phenomenon differently.

“The safety net is working,” said Janet Davenport, spokeswoman for the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut.

“Rising insurance costs are tough on employers and employees,” Davenport said. “Faced with rising premiums and copays or no insurance options, more low-income adults are eligible for Medicaid for low-income adults.”

The rise in people joining public plans wasn’t exclusively unemployed people, though the total number of unemployed people with or without insurance was up 18 percent, from 150,141 to 176,999, according to Census estimates.

Unemployed Connecticut residents who have taxpayer-funded health plans increased 25 percent, to 49,289. Public plans also saw an increase of 5 percent in membership by people who don’t have a job but are not considered in the labor force because they aren’t actively looking for work. The total number of people in that group receiving public health care was 127,016.

And the number of working poor in Connecticut who joined public health plans rose by 8.6 percent, to 118,862. That was the most significant increase of any state in lower New England, New York and New Jersey.

About Matthew Sturdevant

Full-time staff journalist at The Hartford Courant and magazine freelancer with a master's degree in writing from Dartmouth. My work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, Taiwan News, The Baltimore Sun and many other news sources. My blog has been referenced by Politico.com, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Georgetown Law Library and a number of organizations in healthcare and business. Sturdevant’s blog is "a well-written wealth of ideas," said The Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, (businessjournalism.org, May 18, 2011). I have experience writing for newspapers, magazines, Web sites and blogs as well as shooting and editing video. I made regular appearances on news-talk radio and on the NBC affiliate station in Corpus Christi, Texas. I made occasional appearances on the Fox affiliate in Connecticut promoting Hartford Courant articles.

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