Census: Level of uninsured holds steady despite poor economy

The proportion of Connecticut residents without health insurance held steady at 8.8 percent in 2009, while the rate of children without coverage dropped to 3.8 percent, according to census estimates released Tuesday.

That might not be a bad showing for a year that included a recession and net job losses every month.

But the figures also indicate a growing reliance on government insurance programs, a safety net that could face cuts as state lawmakers grapple with a massive budget deficit and as the extra federal funding that helped states maintain Medicaid coverage is set to expire.

“The public programs are effectively protecting children during this economic downturn,” said Mary Alice Lee, senior policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children.

She warned that Connecticut families are “not out of the woods yet” economically, and that the legislature and the next governor will need to do their best to protect the public programs that have been keeping children insured.

The rise in public insurance enrollment and drop in private coverage occurred nationwide, as did a drop in overall health insurance coverage even as more children were insured. Nationally, 2.2 million more people were uninsured in 2009 than 2008, an increase from 14.6 percent to 15.1 percent. Among children under 18, the uninsured rate dropped from 9.3 percent to 8.6 percent.

The figures come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which is given to a sample of the population.

A report released by the census bureau attributed the increased enrollment in public programs in part to two federal laws. The 2009 reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program made more children eligible for public programs, although it likely had less of an effect in Connecticut than elsewhere because the state had already expanded eligibility for children to receive public coverage.

In addition, the federal stimulus act included money to help states provide Medicaid services. Instead of receiving 50 cents in federal reimbursement for every dollar spent on Medicaid, as it typically does, Connecticut has been receiving nearly 62 cents per dollar spent.

The money comes with a condition: States cannot narrow eligibility for Medicaid while receiving the extra federal cash. Those funds are expected to end June 30, and advocates are concerned that states facing dire budget situations will then slash Medicaid, which represents one of the largest pieces of the state budget.

Demand for Connecticut’s public insurance programs has been growing. Enrollment in the HUSKY program, which covers children and their parents, rose by 8.5 percent, to 373,075 from December 2008 to December 2009. Enrollment is now up to nearly 400,000.

The majority of state residents with insurance still receive private coverage, although the portion fell to 76.2 percent in 2009, down from 78.4 percent a year earlier, according to the census estimates. That equates to about 57,700 fewer people with private coverage. Public insurance covered 26.4 percent of insured state residents last year, up from 25.1 in 2008.

It’s not clear the extent to which the shift comes from people losing jobs or employers no longer offering coverage. In 2009, the number of nonfarm jobs in Connecticut fell every month; overall, the state shed 54,800 jobs from January to December.

One indicator of the need for health insurance, the HUSKY Infoline, has gotten a surge in calls from people looking for health insurance.

Many callers had lost their jobs, or had employers who dropped their health insurance, or had their premiums hiked to unaffordable levels, said Maria Dynia, manager of research and evaluation for the United Way of Connecticut, which runs the HUSKY Infoline.

Many of the callers were not eligible for HUSKY or other subsidized programs, and were instead referred to the Department of Insurance for private coverage options or to the Charter Oak Health Plan or other Medicaid options, she said.

From the 2009 to 2010 fiscal years, the number of inquiries from people looking for health insurance grew by 47 percent, from 2,171 to 3,185.

Earlier this month, the census bureau released health insurance estimates from the Current Population Survey, another census instrument. That survey showed a decline in the number of state residents with health insurance, although nearly the entire drop was reported to have come from fewer people receiving Medicaid coverage, which is not consistent with state Medicaid data.

The two surveys define health insurance status differently. The American Community Survey records a person’s health insurance status on the day he or she is surveyed. The Current Population Survey defines someone as uninsured only if he or she did not have health coverage for a full year.