WASHINGTON – Health insurance costs for Maryland workers rose almost 37 percent over the last four years, more than twice as fast as the state’s average 15 percent income increase during the same period, according to a national report released Tuesday.
Maryland did better than most: The report by the nonprofit consumer group Families USA said that premiums grew at an even faster rate in 34 states, and in many states premiums rose three times as fast as income from 2000 to 2004.
But state health consumer groups said that Maryland’s rankings are no reason to celebrate.
“Maryland is an extremely wealthy state. How is it that we have so many uninsured and underinsured in our state?” asked Glenn Schneider, executive director of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative and Maryland Health Care for All Coalition.
“It doesn’t matter what the national rankings are. It matters what these people are going through day after day,” Schneider said.
State regulators and industry representatives declined comment Tuesday, saying they had not been able to review the report.
But Schneider said the major culprit in Maryland’s price hikes is prescription drug costs. And Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, said that mirrors a national problem.
“The fastest rising component is pharmaceutical costs,” Pollack said. “Working families fell further behind and health costs became even more unaffordable.”
Schneider’s group has been working in the General Assembly for a range of initiatives that would provide affordable health care for all Marylanders. But Pollack said the long-term solution is going to have to come from the national level.
“Ultimately, this needs national leadership, and although the impact is somewhat different from one state to another, this needs to be dealt with on a national basis,” he said.
The report also said the number of uninsured Marylanders under age 65 rose from 1 million in 2000 to 1.4 million in 2004 — a 4.2 percent increase. The uninsured now make up 27.8 percent of state residents under age 65, the report said.
Part of that uninsured group is children living in poverty. Maryland was one of the states that froze enrollment in recent years in its State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which provides children with health coverage if their families’ income falls below 200 percent of the poverty level.
Children’s advocacy groups say the report confirms a disturbing trend — lack of coverage for one of the state’s most vulnerable groups.
“Those kinds of numbers are exactly the reason why any retreat of SCHIP would be terrible for the health of Maryland’s children,” said Sharon Rubinstein, spokeswoman for the Baltimore-based Advocates for Children and Youth. “That’s not the right direction to be moving in with a state as wealthy as Maryland.”
For Schneider, the most disturbing aspect of the report is that health insurance is becoming something that he said only the rich can afford, depriving the rest of the population of what he called a necessity.
“The worst thing this report says is that it’s making health insurance look like it’s something of the past,” he said. “It’s becoming more and more of a luxury for people who can pay.”
-30- CNS 09-28-04