A new state report finds Minnesota's uninsured rate basically held steady through the first five months of the pandemic, with growth in government-based coverage offsetting declines in private health insurance provided by employers.

Whereas an estimated 264,400 people, or 4.7% of state residents, lacked health insurance coverage in October 2019, the number by July 2020 was down slightly to 258,600 people, for a rate of 4.6%, according to numbers released Tuesday by the Minnesota Department of Health.

Minnesota reported its first COVID-19 infection in March. Between April and July, enrollment in private coverage declined by about 29,500 people, according to the report, while government-based coverage grew by 43,700 during the time period.

Growth was concentrated in Medical Assistance, which is Minnesota's version of the state-federal Medicaid program.

"The investments we made before and during the pandemic to ensure Minnesotans had access to affordable health coverage helped more people stay insured, even in the midst of job losses and economic instability," state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a statement.

At the outset of the pandemic, Health Department researchers feared there might be widespread coverage losses among those with job-based health insurance, leaving many Minnesotans without financial support for obtaining care in the middle of a public health crisis.

In the end, though, government programs provided coverage for more low-income people as support for employers seemed to help prevent some losses in job-based coverage, said Stefan Gildemeister, the state's health economist.

Minnesota is letting people who otherwise would have had to renew eligibility for Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare remain enrolled in the insurance programs, the Health Department report noted. The state's MNsure health insurance exchange, which helps enroll people in the state programs, ran a special enrollment period during the early months of the pandemic.

Federal support for businesses through programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program let some businesses continue offering benefits and wages, according to the report.

Stability in the net amount of coverage for state residents during the time period is good, Gildemeister said, but it also suggested an enduring problem with access to coverage for some front-line workers, particularly those in hospitality and service industries. To some extent, job losses were concentrated in industries that were less likely to provide health insurance benefits in the first place.

"In 2019, only about 55.8% of non-elderly adult employees in leisure and hospitality reported having group coverage (as compared to 71.1% of all employed Minnesotans age 18 to 64)," the report states.

"These individuals were also more likely to be uninsured," the report said. "Similarly for food preparation and serving, the occupational category with the highest number of unemployment claims between March and December 2020, only 37% of vacancies indicated an offer of health insurance coverage."

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744

Twitter: @chrissnowbeck