WASHINGTON – The number of people without health insurance in Maryland grew at one of the fastest rates in the country last year, but the state still had a smaller percentage of uninsured people than the nation as a whole, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday.
The number of uninsured in the state grew to 12.8 percent in 2002, a 1.5 percentage point increase from 2001. Only North Carolina and Mississippi had larger increases — 1.6 percent each — and nationwide the rate rose by 0.9 percent.
Experts say the trend reflects the state of the economy.
“I’m not very surprised at seeing these numbers,” said Enrique Martinez-Vidal, deputy director for performance and benefits of the Maryland Health Care Commission. “Maryland’s probably not much different than anywhere else. The (rising) cost of premiums plays a large role, the economy not being so great plays a large role, and there’s some job loss.”
Some advocates worry that “the economy not being so great” means the problem will only get worse.
“The report shows that public health insurance, like Medicaid and SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program), were doing what they were supposed to by picking up the uninsured,” said Bob Zahradnik, a policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “But in 2003 states started making cuts to Medicaid programs.”
Zahradnik estimated that about 680,000 people went without health insurance in Maryland in 2002.
At 12.8 percent, however, the percentage of uninsured people in Maryland is still relatively low compared to the rest of the nation, which averages 14.9 percent. Texas and New Mexico led the nation with uninsured rates of 24.7 and 20.9 percent respectively.
But there is still reason for concern in Maryland, advocates said.
“I believe the safety net is broken,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA, a social services and advocacy organization in Takoma Park. “We need to reshape the safety net because with the privatization (of health care), a lot of people in poverty, and the government cutting back on social and health services, that leaves the low-income people without options. We have no choices.”
Torres said the report points to the need for universal health care for “everybody regardless of race, income, immigration status or nationality.”
But others said the report points to effects of skyrocketing health-care costs during a weak economy.
“They’ve had five years of double-digit inflation (in health care premiums) and many businesses are at the point where they just can’t afford it anymore and stay competitive in the marketplace,” said Miles Cole, a senior vice president at the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.
Cole said health care premiums increased an average 12.7 percent in 2002.
Zahradnik said the increasing cost of health care worsens the already tight fiscal situation.
“Fewer people have jobs and more people are losing employer health insurance,” he said. “Smaller businesses respond to that type of cost increase by dropping some workers from health insurance altogether or increasing the cost for employees, making it too expensive for some, particularly lower-income employees.”
For Maryland residents who find themselves without health insurance, the Maryland Department of Health suggests looking into private insurance plans, the Maryland Health Insurance Plan and the Maryland Children’s Health Insurance Plan. -30- CNS 09