Big Jump In Health Coverage Lowers Mass. Uninsured Costs

By | August 21, 2008

Massachusetts is experiencing a big jump in health insurance and a big drop in payments for the uninsured under the state’s health care law.

Between Jan. 1 and March 31, the number of people getting health insurance grew from 340,000 to 439,000, according to figures released Tuesday by the Patrick administration.

A total of 191,000 people have gotten private insurance since the law took effect in June 2006. Another 176,000 purchased subsidized insurance, while 72,000 have gotten insured through government programs.

When former Gov. Mitt Romney signed the bill into law in April 2006, the number of uninsured people in Massachusetts was estimated at 400,000 by the state and 650,000 by federal officials.

Meanwhile, the number of uninsured seeking free emergency care at hospitals and community health centers has fallen.

Between Oct. 1, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2006, some 396,000 people sought free care. During the same period last year, that number fell to 248,000 — a decline of 37 percent.

State payments for treating those people fell from $166 million to $98 million – a drop of 41 percent.

“To have insured nearly a half-million people in less than two years is nothing short of remarkable,” Gov. Deval Patrick said in a statement. “The significant reduction in free care through the Health Safety Net provides further evidence that health care reform is having its intended effect.”

Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, secretary of health and human services, credited the multi-pronged effort to insure people through the expansion of Medicaid, publicly subsidized insurance and a government mandate requiring coverage by those who can afford it.

“We appreciate the efforts of all parties but will need to ensure that we can sustain the effort going forward,” Bigby said.

One of those parties is the Bush administration, which has provided a waiver for the past three years so the state can reallocate how it spends federal Medicaid money. Medicaid is a state and federally funded program that provides health care assistance to low-income people.

The federal payments, crucial to the survival of new law, were set to expire on June 30, but Massachusetts has received four extensions to continue negotiating their future.

The state has been pushing for increased funding because it expects at least 50,000 more residents to sign up for Commonwealth Care, the subsidized insurance program for lower-income residents ineligible for Medicaid.

That’s more than expected and comes at time when Massachusetts is dealing with a tight budget and declining revenues.

Federal officials, however, have balked, arguing that the state should have budgeted for the coverage with money the state instead sent to hospitals and community health care centers that formerly treated the uninsured.

The Massachusetts program was premised on the assumption that payments for the uninsured could be cut if the rolls of the privately insured increased.

The new statistics show both trends are occurring, even as the dispute about how to finance the changes continues.

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