LEWISTON – The number of Mainers without health insurance increased last year, U.S. Census Bureau figures released Tuesday show. That gives critics of the state’s Dirigo Health Reform new ammunition to use against the program.

According to the data, 141,000 Mainers didn’t have health insurance in 2005, up from 130,000 the year before. Nationally, the number of uninsured also increased, to 46.6 million from 45.3 million.

“The U.S. Census Bureau statistics clearly reveal that the current policies are not only failing to insure more Mainers, but are actually driving more people from the insured roles,” said Tarren Bragdon, director of health reform initiatives for The Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank that opposes Dirigo Health.

While the one-year numbers for Maine show a decline in those with coverage, the Census Bureau recommends considering multiple-year averages for insurance rates to get a more accurate measure of a state’s performance, and it also reports that the uninsured rates between 2004 and 2005 for Maine are “not statistically different.”

Maine’s uninsured rate remains low when compared to the national numbers. For the country as a whole, 17.9 percent of the population under the age of 65 lacks health insurance. Maine’s rate is 12.3 percent, which places it ninth-best among states, behind Minnesota (9.6), Iowa (9.9), Hawaii (10.3), Massachusetts (11.1), Wisconsin (11.2), New Hampshire (11.8), Pennsylvania (12.1) and Kansas (12.2).

“The Census data is good nationally,” said Trish Riley, the director of the Governor’s Office of Health Policy and Finance. “But it’s not as good for small states because the sample size is too small. … Essentially, what the numbers show is that Maine stayed even from 2004 and 2005.”

That, Riley said, is good news.

“For much of last year, we had 10,000 people – childless adults living near poverty – who lost coverage because of federal caps on Medicaid waivers,” Riley said. “It means we held equal. Equal – given that 10,000 people lost Medicaid coverage – is a huge success story.”

Riley credited the state’s Dirigo Health, which aims to provide universal health insurance coverage, for helping the state to hold steady.

“The fact, candidly, that we held even shows that Dirigo is working,” Riley said.

Dirigo’s critics disagreed.

“What we keep hearing about the Dirigo initiative is that they are reaching the uninsured,” Bragdon said. “What we see in the latest data is that that’s just not the case.”

Looking back over 10 years’ worth of numbers, Bragdon said that the rate of uninsured in Maine has remained relatively constant.

“Maine is putting $44 million into a new health initiative, all in the quest to reduce the number of uninsured, but that number hasn’t significantly changed in the last decade,” Bragdon said.

What has changed, however, is the percentage of people who receive insurance from their employer. In 1989, almost 81 percent of people received insurance at work. That number has dropped to 68.2 percent in 2005, according to the Census numbers.

“Since the day we opened the doors on Dirigo, they’ve been very critical,” Riley said of the Maine Heritage Policy Center. “Maine has kept the uninsured rate consistent despite employers continuing to drop coverage.”

Dirigo is supposed to be about enabling the uninsured to buy private insurance, Bragdon said.

“Here’s this great new social program that is supposed to correct this, but it isn’t,” Bragdon said. “It’s time for the state to regroup and consider a different strategy.”


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