It sounded like good news this week that Connecticut has thousands fewer residents without health insurance, bucking a national increase in the number of uninsured people.
But activists see a darker side behind the census numbers and vowed Wednesday not to let the data impede the push for more dramatic health care reform.
New U.S. Census data released Tuesday showed that there were 325,000 Connecticut residents without health insurance in 2006 - a decrease of 56,000 from 381,000 in 2005. The percentage of the state's population that is uninsured fell to 9.4 percent from 10.9 percent.
Health care reform proponents, however, say some kinds of insurance policies can leave people with unaffordable medical bills, and that 325,000 uninsured is still too high.
"The numbers can go up or down; it doesn't take away from the fundamental need for change in the health care system," said Juan A. Figueroa, president of the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut.
Nationally, the number of people without insurance rose from 44.8 million in 2005 to 47 million in 2006.
Although the Census Bureau didn't explain why the number of uninsured dropped in Connecticut, insurance industry officials and reform groups cited several possible reasons:
• Connecticut added thousands of jobs in 2006, and many of them would have included health insurance benefits.
• The state's HUSKY insurance program enrolled more than 7,000 newborns and children, typically from low-income households, in the second half of 2006.
• Some insurers have been launching new and less costly individual policies for people who don't have work-based insurance, and heavily advertising individual products.
At least 30 percent of people who have been buying individual policies from ConnectiCare were previously not insured, said Stephen Jewett, spokesman for the Farmington-based health insurer.
Jewett views the declining number of Connecticut's uninsured residents as good news, but said, "The need continues to find innovative solutions to get people insured and get people access to regular medical care."
The insurance industry, though, doesn't want the kind of reform championed by some activists - a "single-payer" or government-run health care system that would replace private insurers.
Connecticut's General Assembly passed some reforms this year, such as expanding eligibility for HUSKY programs and Medicaid for pregnant women, and increased Medicaid reimbursement to doctors.
Beverley Brakeman, director of Citizens for Economic Opportunity and a single-payer advocate, hopes reform doesn't stop there because of the new census data.
"It may make some politicians think they're off the hook on it, but [9.4 percent] of people is still a large chunk of uninsured," said Brakeman, whose organization is a coalition of labor and community groups.
Figueroa agreed. "Ten percent is just not acceptable, particularly in a state where insurance is supposed to be one of the bigger industries," he said.
The three-year average of uninsured in Connecticut, which some people, including Figueroa, consider a better reflection of the problem than a single-year view, was 362,000 for 2004 to 2006, or 10.4 percent of the population.
Connecticut Working Families, another labor-community group coalition, also has no intention of giving up its fight for more health care reform.
"It's about making health care coverage more affordable for everybody in Connecticut," said the group's communications director, Joe Dinkin.
Even getting private insurance isn't always an adequate solution, Brakeman noted. The trade-off for some policies for lower premiums, for instance, is high deductibles and other cost-sharing by the consumer.
Brakeman is also worried that more people are joining the ranks of the insured by buying "limited benefit" plans, which some major insurers are promoting. The policies set low limits on the amount they'll pay each year for medical care, leaving consumers with potentially ruinous medical bills if they get seriously ill or injured.
Citizens for Economic Opportunity unsuccessfully tried to ban the sale of limited benefit plans in Connecticut.
Insurers see limited benefit plans as one more option for people who would otherwise have no insurance. And Keith Stover, a lobbyist for the Connecticut Association of Health Plans, insists the industry's innovativeness in product design plays a key role in getting more people insured.
The decline in the number of uninsured is very encouraging, Stover said, cautioning reformers, "You need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water."
The vast majority of Connecticut residents are insured, and the number of uninsured is "not a problem that necessitates some over-arching government structure," Stover said.
In Connecticut, 3,137,000, or 90.6 percent of residents had some type of health insurance in 2006, including Medicaid and Medicare. That was up from 3,106,000, or 89.1 percent, in 2005.
Reform activists have been regrouping after what they considered a lackluster amount of legislative action this year. They're not sure how much reform can be accomplished next year because the 2008 General Assembly will have a short session.
Still, they say they're committed to more grass-roots organizing and won't fade into the woodwork.
"We're in this for the long haul," Brakeman said, "until everyone has access to quality, affordable health care."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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