The number of children without health insurance rose sharply in the past two years in Minnesota, making it the only state to see a significant increase since 2008, according to a report released Tuesday.
Uninsured Minnesota kids totaled 84,000, although that number could fall again as a result of changes enacted by the Legislature in 2009. The uninsured rate rose from 5.8 to 6.6 percent.
While Minnesota's rate remains better than the national average of 8 percent, the state is no longer among the nation's best.
"Minnesota used to be in the top five," said Amy Crawford, director of Children's Defense Fund-Minnesota. "Now we're in the middle of the pack."
Thirty-four states significantly improved their rates of insured children since 2008, according to the report from Georgetown University's Center for Children and Families.
Crawford said a decline in health coverage reduces the amount of preventive care children receive and sets them on paths toward poor performance in school and chronic diseases as adults.
Minnesota has always enjoyed a higher rate of children and adults covered by employer-based health insurance, so the recession had a more dramatic impact here as businesses cut workers, raised premiums or dropped health plans altogether, said Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. Other states also used solutions to expand coverage in recent years that Minnesota had adopted years ago, he added.
One step used by Minnesota lawmakers to address chronic budget deficits in the past decade was to reduce adults' eligibility for subsidized health programs such as Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare, and eliminate the General Assistance Medical Care program. While the enrollment standards haven't changed for children, young people have nonetheless been affected, Thissen said.
"When you cut parents' health care," he said, "you lose the kids, as well."
One solution is eliminating the red tape and administrative confusion that exist for families trying to enroll their children in state programs.
Legislators in 2009 approved changes to boost MinnesotaCare enrollment, including waivers of a four-month waiting period and an initial premium payment. The federal government signed off on those changes in June, but the state hasn't enacted them yet. An estimated 16,000 of the state's 84,000 uninsured children could gain coverage through these reforms by 2015.
The Minnesota Department of Human Services is updating computer systems to adopt the MinnesotaCare changes, spokeswoman Karen Smigielski said. "While we don't have a specific date, we are working to implement these as rapidly as possible," she said.
The Georgetown report used data from the U.S. Census American Community Surveys for 2008 and 2010.
Six other states, including Wisconsin, showed slightly higher rates of uninsured children. But those increases were lesser than the statistical margin of error for the surveys.
Florida showed the biggest rise in coverage -- cutting its rate of uninsured children by 4 percentage points -- but its 2010 rate of 12.7 percent was still among the worst in the nation.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744