Cost remains barrier to health insurance

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(Host) More people have health coverage in Vermont as the state has rolled out new programs aimed at covering the uninsured.

But a new survey shows that cost remains a major barrier, despite state subsidies of insurance premiums.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) The survey shows that the percentage of uninsured Vermonters has decreased significantly since 2005. At that time, about 61,000 people lacked health coverage. In 2008, the number had dropped to approximately 47,000.

The survey was conducted in late 2008, just as the economy was getting worse. Officials say the number of uninsured has probably crept up since then.

Dian Kahn is with the Department of Banking, Securities and Health Care Administration, the state agency that conducted the survey. She gave a simple explanation for why people still can’t get coverage.

(Kahn) "Of course the main reason is cost, cost, cost. Cost is the only reason for 64 percent of uninsured. Another 21.1 say it’s one of the main reasons."

(Dillon) Most of the people without coverage have jobs. But Kahn told the legislature’s Health Care Reform Commission that they’re often in low-wage jobs with no health benefits.

(Kahn) "Two-thirds work for a private company and there’s about 26 percent of self employed. Nearly half in the service sector – this probably fairly reflects our economy here."

(Dillon) The state offers a number of programs to provide coverage, from Dr. Dynosaur for children under 18 to Catamount Health, which subsidizes privately run health insurance plans.

Peter Sterling is director of the Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security, a group that wants to expand state health coverage.

Sterling says the survey shows that even with state subsidies, insurance premiums remain too high.

(Sterling) "The one number that jumps out at me is 31 percent of Vermonters said that they had a state health plan – VHAP or Medicaid or Dr. Dynasaur – in the past year but are now currently uninsured, meaning chances are they couldn’t afford that premium."

(Dillon) Sterling would like to see the state increase the subsidy for Catamount Health, which now covers about 9,000 people.

(Sterling) "People are familiar with the programs. A lot of people have had their kids on Dr. D and had good experiences. I think it’s the cost to adults. When you’re talking about someone earning $13, $14 an hour having to come up with a Catamount Health premium of $130 a month, where does that money come from when you’re stretched to the limit already with basically heating your house, trying to buy some food, and keeping your car running?

(Dillon) The goal of Catamount was to have 96 percent of Vermonters covered by 2010. The survey shows that the state is still short of that target, since 7.6 percent of residents still lack coverage.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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