News

People with no health insurance increasing

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

South King County has a disproportionately high number of residents living without health insurance, according to a recent study, but county officials are considering ways to reverse a trend of non-coverage countywide.

The Seattle-King County Public Health study, which explored rates of insurance coverage from 1995-2004, shows the number of uninsured people has spiked in the last several years. Latino people have the highest non-coverage rate at 36 percent, and the highest rate by far was among those who took the Health Department’s survey in Spanish. Of those, 73 percent reported they don’t have insurance.

Latino rates of coverage were followed by African-Americans, 22 percent of whom reported they didn’t have insurance. African-Americans were followed by Indians and Alaska Natives at 21 percent, Asian and Pacific Islanders at 13 percent, and whites at 10 percent.

About 15.5 percent of King County residents between the ages of 18 and 64 were uninsured in 2004, and 41 percent of the county’s near-poor — those with incomes between $15,000 and $24,999 a year — were uninsured, according to the study.

South King County had a disproportionately high number of uninsured residents at 15 percent, compared to 13 percent in Seattle, 11 percent in north King County and 7 percent on the Eastside.

Susan Johnson, a spokeswoman from Public Health Seattle and King County, said the report will be used to guide and inform the county’s response to the health coverage situation. “It’s not just a panel of ‘Ho hum, go away,’” she said. “There’s a real effort.”

She referenced a recent study that reported health insurance premiums rose 9.2 percent in 2004 — twice the rate of inflation and three times worker pay increases. Even if employers offer healthcare, she said, many employees can’t afford the premium deductions from their paychecks.

“You’re feeling this in south King County with the rents,” Johnson said. “The working poor are moving south.”

In addition, it’s becoming more difficult for some people to find full-time employment that offers healthcare coverage.

“Anecdotally, we know over the past 10 years, a full-time job with benefits has turned into two part-time jobs with no benefits,” Johnson said. That means people are working enough to pay their rents, but they still can’t get insurance.

“The majority of uninsured are the working poor,” Edmonds said. “There’s not enough room on the Basic Health Plan. And they work for companies that don’t offer health insurance.”

Depending on income level, some people can sign up for Washington’s Basic Health Plan, but there are a limited number of slots available and many end up on a waiting list. If a person is involved in an accident, he or she is “just going to have to go to the emergency room,” Johnson said.

An emergency room visit can cost thousands of dollars and represent a serious financial setback, or the hospital can write off the care as a charity loss — “and pass it along to the rest of us,” Johnson said.

While there aren’t yet any set plans to address the problem, Edmonds said county health officials will be incorporating the data into policy discussions with the board of health. She said the county might focus on uninsured children first — many are already eligible, it’s just a matter of getting them enrolled.

Still, any additional policy-making is still up in the air. “I’m not sure about the approach,” she said. “What I do know is it’s an unacceptable situation and it’s costing taxpayers money.”

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