DFL trumpets MNsure as Minnesota now has 2nd-lowest percentage of uninsured residents

<a href="" target="_blank">Minnesotans didn't like the Paul Bunyan MNsure ads</a>, but they're getting insured nonetheless.

Minnesotans didn't like the Paul Bunyan MNsure ads, but they're getting insured nonetheless.

A new study conducted by the University of Minnesota's State Health Access Data Assistance Center (SHADAC) finds that last fall's MNsure rollout coincided with a dramatic drop in the number of Minnesotans without health insurance.

Between September 30 of last year and May 1, the number of uninsured Minnesotans fell by 180,500, a reduction of 40.6 percent, the study finds. About 264,500 Minnesotans still don't have health coverage, but that's significantly down from 445,000 last fall.

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Minnesota now has the lowest percentage of uninsured residents (4.9 percent) on record, and the second-lowest percentage in the country, behind Massachusetts.

But the researchers behind the study tell us the drop in the number of uninsured Minnesotans doesn't necessarily mean MNsure is a smashing success.

"I want to be clear that our study is not an assessment of how well MNsure functioned," Julie Sonier, senior research fellow at SHADAC, says. "It's well known there were operational difficulties and that's something we didn't address at all."

That said, Sonier went one to characterize MNsure as "much more than a website -- it's also an extensive outreach operation."

"All that public awareness around insurance coverage" was one significant upshot of the MNsure rollout, according to Sonier.

MNsure wasn't even the only public-sector explanation for the drop in uninsured Minnesotans, however.

"This increase in health insurance coverage was primarily driven by an increase in the number of Minnesotans enrolled in state health insurance programs, Medical Assistance (Minnesota's Medicaid program) and MinnesotaCare," a summary of the study notes. "Enrollment increased by over 155,000 for these two programs combined."

The number of Minnesotans insured privately basically remained flat, which indicates, generally speaking, that private employers didn't stop offering their employees health coverage just because of MNsure's availability.

"In the last six months we've have lots of people showing up and enrolling in new coverage that weren't eligible before, and there's quite a bit to be said about the speed of change," Sonier says. "We're not able to evaluate how well MNsure did, but a fair amount of what we saw was primarily about attention to MNsure as well as people becoming aware of the requirements of the law."

The study also didn't evaluate the financial availability of MNsure and other public health insurance subsidies.

"Much of the coverage increase we saw occurred in medical assistance, which is free," Sonier says. "There's also substantial financial assistance for buyers who are buying non-group coverage through MNsure."

Despite the study's limitations, another SHADAC senior researcher who worked on the study, Elizabeth Lukanen, tells us, "We're really excited about this, in part because this is really very first state-level evaluation" conducted since the Affordable Care Act rollout.

"We think the impact is really going to vary from state to state," Lukanen says, adding that the results observed in Minnesota are consistent with what happened in Massachusetts after the state rolled out a health care exchange back in 2007. "So it's in the best interests of everyone to try to do the state-level analysis."

The study summary mentions unanswered questions that researchers tell us they plan to dig into later this year.

"Further research and analysis are needed to answer questions such as what are the characteristics of Minnesotans who gained or lost coverage from different sources, how many Minnesotans who purchased coverage through MNsure were previously uninsured, and what are the characteristics of the remaining uninsured population in Minnesota," the summary says.

Both Gov. Mark Dayton and the DFL House caucus released statements this afternoon trumpeting the study's implications in the context of the political controversy that surrounds MNsure and promises to linger throughout this year's election cycle. To read about them, click to page two.

Here's what Dayton said:
From offering the lowest health insurance rates in the nation, to securing the lowest uninsured rate in state history, health reform is working in Minnesota. Today, 180,500 more Minnesotans have affordable access to quality health insurance. We have more work to do to help ensure all Minnesotans are covered, but today's report demonstrates that health reform in Minnesota is headed in the right direction.
In the House DFL statement, Rep. Joe Atkins (D-Inver Grove Heights), author of the MNsure bill, says, "For the first time in a long while, we're finally bringing down the number of uninsured Minnesotans in a substantial way. Minnesotans have been able to take advantage of our lowest premiums in the nation to get high-quality, affordable insurance, some of them for the first time in their lives. This is a great, positive step forward for health care reform in Minnesota."

Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Thissen (D-Minneapolis) took a shot across the aisle.

"In their partisan attacks on MNsure and the Affordable Care Act, Republicans asked time and time again if the uninsured rate is going down. Today we have a clear answer that yes, MNsure is making a huge difference in helping the lives of Minnesotans," Thissen says in the statement. "Reducing our rate of uninsured Minnesotans reduces uncompensated care, saving taxpayers, hospitals, counties, and anybody paying for private health insurance millions of dollars a year."

Finally, House Majority Leader Erin Murphy (D-St. Paul) acknowledges MNsure hasn't been perfect, but adds that so far, so good.

"Despite the early technical challenges, MNsure and the Affordable Care Act in Minnesota have surpassed their goals and are delivering results for Minnesotans," Murphy says in the statement. "We know there is more work to be done to continue improving MNsure, but today's report confirms what we already know: we're not going backwards. We're not going back to the days of denials for pre-existing conditions or having your coverage dropped when you get sick. We're going to continue moving forward with our goal of ensuring every Minnesotan has access to affordable, high-quality coverage."

To read the SHADAC study for yourself, click to page three.


Early Impacts of the Affordable Care Act on Health Insurance Coverage in Minnesota

-- Follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter at @atrupar. Got a tip? Drop him a line at [email protected]