After 17 years tracking Minnesota's health trends through the state Health Access Survey, University of Minnesota researcher Kathleen Call thought she had found a reason to celebrate in some otherwise dismal results released earlier this week.

In 2011, for the first time, American Indians -- who lag behind white Minnesotans in a wide range of important health indicators -- showed a sharp increase in health insurance coverage and were no longer uninsured at a significantly higher rate than Minnesotans overall.

Her findings came in a biennial report by the U and the Minnesota Department of Health, which found that high numbers of Minnesotans remained uninsured last year, despite two years of recovery from the Great Recession.

But her excitement was short-lived. On closer examination, the data for Minnesota Indians showed an increase in public coverage through programs such as Medical Assistance and veterans benefits. It also suggested a shift toward lower incomes -- and an unemployment rate of nearly 45 percent -- which might explain why more members of the community were qualifying for public coverage, not picking up private health insurance.

What was initially thought to be a sign of recovery from the economic recession of 2008-2009 may, in fact, be a symptom of its lingering devastation. "This isn't the success story we were hoping for," Call said in an interview.

But Call and her research partner, Stefan Gildemeister of the Minnesota Department of Health, said their journey to understand how well Minnesotans are able to access health insurance and health care has only begun. They hope to gain a better understanding of what's happening in the American Indian community within the next few months so they can help Minnesota lawmakers tackle the state's daunting health disparities.

"At the end of the day, it's great if more people are getting the coverage they need," Call said. "But this still isn't quite making sense to us. We're still digging."

Amanda Bankston is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.