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Rate Of People Without Health Insurance Drops In State

By LYNN DOAN | Courant Staff Writer

August 27, 2008

Connecticut was one of only five states where the number of people without health insurance dropped significantly in the past two years, but the number of poor people in the state has remained largely unchanged, according to Census Bureau reports released Tuesday.

The average percentage of Connecticut residents without health insurance coverage in 2006 and 2007 fell to 9.4 from 10.9 in 2004 and 2005, according to the Census Bureau's annual report on poverty and health insurance.

The state ranked 44th in the Census report among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in average percentage of people without insurance (those with the highest percentages were ranked at the top of the list). Health insurance experts attributed that ranking to expanding eligibility for publicly funded insurance programs and more aggressive outreach campaigns.

But poverty levels across the state have not changed much. The percentage of people living below the poverty level in Connecticut dropped from 8.3 in 2006 to 7.9 in 2007, but that decline is not considered statistically significant, according to the Census Bureau.

Still, the state ranks 50th nationwide in the percentage of people living in poverty, second only to New Hampshire, and 47th in the percentage of children living in poverty.

In Hartford, 47 percent of children in 2007 were living in families earning less than the federal poverty level of roughly $24,349 for a family of five.

"This alarms us on two levels," said Doug Hall, associate research director for Connecticut Voices for Children. "One, the economy is starting to turn around, and considering we've spent the last four years in an economic recovery, you'd think we'd see an improvement."

Second, he said, the state established a Child Poverty and Prevention Council in 2004 with the goal of cutting child poverty in half by 2014. The state's initiative was praised in a national report in April for its aggressive approach. "But we're now four years into it, and we're seeing no change," Hall said.

"I'd like to think it's a wake-up call for people in both the legislative and executive branches in Connecticut: We need to do more than just offer lip service."

Nationally, 12.5 percent of Americans were living below the poverty level in 2007, up from 11.7 percent in 2001. Between 2006 and 2007, the number of children in poverty grew by nearly half a million.

In a statement released Tuesday, the Coalition on Human Needs, a Washington, D.C.-based alliance of national organizations promoting public policy changes for low-income families, said the data "show that six years of economic growth did not lead to better times for the nation's poor."

"Millions more people today are out of work or facing shrinking earnings," said Deborah Weinstein, the group's executive director. "If the poor saw no benefit over the course of the most recent recovery, their situation is clearly worse today."

The financial situation for some may have worsened since 2007, when people were surveyed for the reports, because the national economy has declined rapidly this year.

Presidential hopefuls were quick to respond to Tuesday's reports, detailing their plans to improve the nation's health care system and economy.

"Today's news confirms what America's struggling families already know that over the past seven years our economy has moved backwards," said Democratic candidate Barack Obama, who is campaigning for tax cuts for the working class and affordable health care. "This is the failed record of George Bush's economic policies that Sen. McCain has called 'great progress.'"

Republican candidate John McCain said Tuesday that his health care plan would create a $5,000-a-family refundable tax credit that would help families buy or maintain coverage and take measures to "restrain out-of-control growth in health care costs that is putting coverage out of reach for too many Americans."

Connecticut officials have stressed that, compared with nationwide figures, its poverty rate and the rate of uninsured are among the nation's lowest. Connecticut was one of five states the others being Massachusetts, Indiana, West Virginia and Wisconsin to see a decrease in the rate of uninsured over the past two years.

"We're heartened by the drop. That's good company to be in," said Jeffrey Beckham, a spokesman for the state Office of Policy and Management.

In 2006, the state poured $1 million into outreach programs to increase the number of families and children enrolled in the publicly funded HUSKY health insurance program. In 2007, Connecticut also expanded its income eligibility requirements for the program.

HUSKY enrollment between July and December of last year increased by nearly 16,000, according to Connecticut Voices for Children.

But health care advocates urged the state Tuesday to set its own standards rather than compare itself with other states.

"If you think the status quo is OK, it's not," said Janet Davenport, spokeswoman for the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut. "There are still people who are behind the numbers and people who are suffering."

A mere 1.5-percentage-point drop, compared with Massachusetts' 2.4 percent drop, goes to show that "we have not made progress in fixing Connecticut's broken health care system," Davenport said.

Until now, the state has taken a "piecemeal approach" to health care issues, changing the eligibility requirements for one program rather than propose more sweeping policy changes, said Jeff Kramer, director of the Center for Healthcare and Insurance Studies at the University of Connecticut.

"There needs to be an overall plan, some type of consensus-driven, cohesive plan that addresses the majority of the issues," he said. "There's no easy answer in terms of getting all these people insured, unless there are some major changes in the way we address these issues."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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