Meet the Bay State’s Uninsured

The national media pass on an important story

By Trudy Lieberman
Columbia Journalism Review, Campaign Desk, Sept. 26, 2011

Last week the Census Bureau released new numbers showing that 5.6 percent of the population in Massachusetts remained without health insurance coverage. That’s a 42 percent drop in the number of the state’s uninsured since the law took effect in 2006. A new study by the Cambridge Health Alliance, one of the state’s safety net providers, showed who was left out, putting a human face on those without insurance. The findings are illuminating given that the Bay State’s health law is the model for the national law, which takes full effect in 2014, and the Romney-Perry feud often flares up around the topic of health reform in the state.

The local press, primarily the Boston Globe and WBUR, covered the story; the national media whiffed on its implications for federal reform. If reform in Massachusetts cut the number of uninsured roughly in half, the same is likely to happen nationally, according to government data. The latest Census Bureau numbers show that nearly fifty million people have no health coverage; the Congressional Budget Office estimates about twenty-three million will be still be uninsured later in the decade. It was as if the national media has forgotten that Massachusetts is a harbinger of what will happen nationally. Or perhaps it’s easier for the national media to cover the he said/he said back and forth between Perry and Romney.

Writing on WBUR’s CommonHealth blog, Carey Goldberg started with an intriguing lead that showed she could sniff out a story — and showed why others should, too: "You figure that when a press release comes in from Physicians for a National Health Program, it has an agenda. But that doesn’t negate the value of the research it highlights—which, in this case, was a paper from Harvard Medical School researchers just out in the Journal of General Internal Medicine."

Researchers surveyed 431 patients who sought care in the emergency department of the Cambridge Health Alliance and conducted in-person interviews with 189 who were uninsured. Their results show that fragmentation still exists in a system built on employer-sponsored coverage. Gobs of paperwork also still exist, and private insurance remains unaffordable for many — even with government tax subsidies. The key points from the study are these:

• Finding affordable coverage is hard. One-third of the respondents said they were uninsured because they could not buy affordable coverage. Half the sample said that the mandate to buy coverage prompted them to look for insurance, but they couldn’t find any they could afford.

• Two-thirds of the uninsured were working, but only one-quarter of them had employer coverage.

• Some declined employer coverage because of its cost. The state requires an employer to cover only 20 percent of the annual family premium and 33 percent of an individual premium. The authors suggest that if the trend continues that requires employees to pay more out-of-pocket, even fewer employees will take their employers’ coverage.

• One-third of the respondents said they were uninsured because they lost their coverage. People receiving subsidized coverage must re-enroll every year. If they don’t get the paperwork sent in within ten days, they lose coverage.

• Eighty-five percent of the uninsured qualified for state-subsidized insurance, but still one-third were without coverage, suggesting, the authors say, “that for some working poor, even heavily subsidized insurance premiums may be unaffordable.”

• Only about six percent said they were uninsured because they didn’t think they needed coverage; in other words, there were few “free riders.” That’s an important point to remember next time the candidates declare that people like to take risks by being uninsured.

Several months ago, a group called PHI, which works to improve conditions for workers who provide long-term care, released a study that meshes with the Cambridge Health Alliance findings. PHI found that while many employers offered coverage, workers were not taking it. About half of the workers surveyed were not eligible for employer coverage because they worked part time or had to satisfy a waiting period for coverage. About one-third of employers raised the level of cost-sharing for their workers. The media showed little interest in this study as well.

“If you don’t find out what the old polices have done, it’s a prescription for bad policy going forward,” says Steffie Woolhandler, one of the Cambridge study authors. Woolhandler and her colleagues offered suggestions for improvement like increasing employer incentives to cover a greater portion of premium costs, reducing cost-sharing for low-wage workers, and making the enrollment process easier. William Woo, who was the editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, once told me there’s a master narrative the press follows. Examining the shortcomings of Massachusetts health reform doesn’t fit the master narrative—at least so far.