Just who are the uninsured in Minnesota?

As executive director of Springboard for the Arts, Laura Zabel soon learned of self-employed artists' need for access to affordable health care.
MinnPost photo by Daniel Corrigan
As executive director of Springboard for the Arts, Laura Zabel soon learned of self-employed artists’ need for access to affordable health care.

Editor’s note:This is the second installment in an occasional series about health-care policy. The first installment is here.

This is not a question that theater major Laura Zabel expected to be fielding when she became head of an arts service organization: Where can an uninsured artist get a low-cost colonoscopy?

But as executive director of St. Paul-based Springboard for the Arts, Zabel has learned that health care is top of mind for the self-employed artists her nonprofit group serves. About 14 percent of artists in Minnesota are uninsured, according to Artists Count, a 2007 survey of about 20,000 artists conducted by Minnesota Citizens for the Arts.

Fourteen percent might not sound like much statistically, but it’s nearly double the 7.2 percent rate of the state’s overall uninsured population, according to the latest Fact Sheet (PDF) prepared by the Minnesota Department of Health and the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.

High self-employment, low income
“It’s a huge issue for artists because of their high rate of self-employment plus their low income, which makes health insurance really, really difficult to afford,” says Zabel, whose staff eventually found the answer to the colonoscopy question through Springboard’s Artists’ Access to Health Care program.

The self-employed — from artists to other entrepreneurs — make up 20.6 percent of Minnesota’s estimated 374,000 uninsured residents, according to the state’s 2007 survey.

Another survey (PDF), [Page 32] conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, estimates Minnesota’s uninsured population could be even larger — 439,000 or 8.5 percent of the total population. Given that 45 million Americans or 15.3 percent of the U.S. population lack health insurance, Minnesota’s stats look decidedly healthier no matter which survey is used. But for health-care policy and funding purposes, Minnesota lawmakers have relied on the state survey since the early 1990s.

Bottom line: Minnesota’s uninsured residents could fill a city close to the population of Minneapolis. Who lives in this big city? Get ready: We’re going to knock down some stereotypes about the uninsured. 

No. 1: The uninsured are not slackers.
“There used to be the popular perception that uninsured people weren’t hard-working and employed people,” says Julie Sonier, director of the health economics program for the Minnesota Department of Health which tracks the uninsured through surveys.

In fact, most of Minnesota’s uninsured are working — 71.3 percent are employed vs. 28.7 unemployed. Of those who are employed, 79.4 percent work for someone else. About 44 percent of those folks work for employers with two to 50 employees, pointing up evidence that small businesses might be hard-pressed to afford and/or offer health insurance. Yet another 23 percent of the uninsured work for employers with 51 to 500 workers. And about 18 percent work for companies with more than 500 employees.

Though 31 percent of the uninsured say they log fewer than 30 hours per week, 44.5 percent report working 31 to 40 hours weekly and 24.5 percent say they work more than 40 hours.

No. 2: They’re not primarily people of color and immigrants.
“Even though populations of color and immigrants are disproportionately likely to be uninsured, most of the uninsured (88.5 percent) in Minnesota are people who were born here (in the U.S.) and 78.2 percent are white,” Sonier says. Whites also make up 88.5 percent of the state’s population.

The two minority groups with the highest proportions of uninsured are blacks and Hispanic/Latinos; 14.7 percent of blacks are uninsured, and 19 percent of Hispanic/Latinos are uninsured.

No. 3: They’re not all low-income.
While low-income people certainly dominate the ranks of the uninsured, increasing numbers of the so-called middle class are joining them, says Kathleen Call, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health/Division of Public Policy and Management who has worked on the state surveys since the mid-1990s.

“The middle class is having a lot of difficulty affording health care coverage, and it’s getting harder for employers to offer it,” Call says. “We’ve seen a drop in the number of people (in the state and U.S.) who are covered by employer-based health coverage. We know people are getting squeezed. It’s more and more expensive. It’s not just a low-income issue anymore, but people with low incomes are suffering more — particularly minorities and young adults just coming out of school who haven’t gotten into positions that offer health care.”

Health economists use federal poverty guidelines in studying the uninsured and determining eligibility for public assistance programs. A household of one with an income of $10,400 is considered to be living in poverty and at 100 percent of the poverty guideline — in government parlance. A family of four with an income of $21,200 meets the same threshold.

In the 2007 state survey, Call and Sonier found higher percentages of uninsured in households with incomes 201 percent to 300 percent of the poverty guideline: 28.2 percent vs. 21.9 percent in 2004. Singles earning $20,800 to $31,200 and families of four bringing in $42,400 to $63,600 were among the 28.2 percent going without health insurance in the state.

The survey also detected a bump in the percentage of uninsured in the 401 percent-plus level: 12.7 percent in 2007 vs. 9.5 percent in 2004. Translation: Singles with an income of $41,600 and families of four with $84,800 are going without insurance.

What gives?

“There are different problems for different groups,” Sonier said, “but we do know that for the 20 percent of uninsured who have access to employer-based insurance, the overwhelming reason they don’t take it is because of the cost.”

No. 4: They’re young, yes, but not necessarily invincible.

The 18- to 24-year-old age group, including those out of high school and college, accounts for the second-biggest percentage of uninsured (24.4 percent) by age in Minnesota. If you add in groups younger than they are (6 to 17) and those slightly older (25 to 34), ages 6 to 34 represent 60 percent of the uninsured population in the state and 38 percent of the state’s residents.

“A number of people in the policy arena and the public have the vision of young people as being ‘young invincibles’ who are making a foolish choice,” Call said.

But those just out of high school are likely working in jobs that don’t offer insurance or even full-time employment, she said. Think of the kids busing tables or working the espresso machine at the corner coffee shop. They’re likely making minimum wage or low pay that won’t cover private-market insurance as well as rent, food and transportation.

Although 16.8 percent of the uninsured didn’t finish high school, 34 percent are high-school graduates and 37.9 percent have some college or tech school. Another 7.5 percent have advanced degrees.

Ed Stych, CEO and owner of Sir Speedy Printing in downtown Minneapolis, says he has run into a few “young invincibles” in his 15-year-old business and believes they’re making “lifestyle choices” when they turn down his company insurance plan in favor of discretionary spending. His lowest-paid worker makes $12 an hour, but the average wage is $18 to $19 among 20 employees. He figures his younger workers should be able to afford a plan in which he contributes $200 per month per employee.

“Younger people will say to me, ‘Gee, I hardly ever go to the doctor, I’m young and healthy … I don’t need health insurance. Let me back up: Younger men say to me, ‘Gee, I hardly ever go to the doctor … I don’t need health insurance.’ Women, for birth control reasons or others, know they need to go to the doctor. They seem to understand that. But men 18 to 30 don’t see any reason to go to the doctor, so they think, ‘Why should I spend money on health insurance?’ “

Stych is willing to tick off all the reasons they need insurance — an accident, cancer, what have you. Sometimes they listen.

For other young workers, however, employer-based health insurance isn’t an option, the state survey found.  (See related story at right.)

“For young adults it’s more often a lack of access to employer coverage than not signing up for it when it’s available,” Sonier said. “They are just as likely (as older workers) to sign up when they have access to it, but they’re much less likely to have access to that coverage. It could be because of the kinds of jobs they have.”

The good news: A change in Minnesota law this year is expected to reduce the numbers of uninsured in the 18- to 24-year-old population, Sonier said. Insurers are now required to cover dependents under their parents’ policies until they are 25 years old.

No. 5: MinnesotaCare and public assistance aren’t sure bets.

About 49 percent of Minnesota’s uninsured are either living in poverty or at 200 percent of the poverty guideline, which prompts the question: Why aren’t they enrolled in the low-cost MinnesotaCare plan (PDF) or another public medical-assistance program?

The state survey found that more than half of the uninsured were potentially eligible for public coverage in 2007 but didn’t have it.

“We’ve found that with the public programs there’s either a lack of awareness (about their eligibility and the programs) or a lack of willingness to enroll in what’s perceived as public assistance,” said Sonier of the state Health Department.

The health-care reform bill passed in May includes some provisions to spread the news about MinnesotaCare and public-assistance programs, Sonier says.
Still, fewer people have been eligible for MinnesotaCare in recent years since the Health Care Access Fund, which pays for MinnesotaCare through a tax on health-care providers, has been tapped by Gov. Tim Pawlenty to help erase the projected state deficit.

Meanwhile, about one-third of the uninsured in Minnesota are stuck. They either aren’t eligible for public assistance or don’t have access to employer-based insurance. “They’re making enough that they don’t qualify for public programs, but they still can’t afford what’s on the private market,” says Call of the U.

Finding health care vs. health insurance
Which brings us back to the uninsured artist who recently asked Springboard for the Arts where to get a low-cost colonoscopy.

Since its founding in 1991, Springboard has been in the business of advising artists on the “nuts and bolts” of making a living as an artist, including financial planning, marketing and networking, says Zabel, the executive director.

But when the nonprofit asked clients a few years ago what other programs they wanted from Springboard, the No. 1 answer was “health care, health care, health care,” she says.

At first, Springboard looked into forming an insurance pool consisting of artists. It was too unwieldy and expensive. The Artists Count survey in 2007 found that 46 percent of artists are insured under individual policies with high deductibles designed for catastrophic illness or injury. Other artists are covered through their spouses’ or significant others’ policies or through another employer. And 14 percent, as mentioned previously, are uninsured.

But through all that data emerged one common denominator: Even those artists who could get high-deductible policies are having trouble paying for basic preventive health care, Zabel said. They are considered “underinsured.”

Springboard’s focus shifted from health insurance to finding low-cost health care for the uninsured as well as the underinsured.

Vouchers for artist discounts
With a slight bump in operating funding from the McKnight and Ecolab foundations, Springboard was able to create the Artists’ Access to Health Care program, which teams up with the Neighborhood Involvement Program clinic in Minneapolis to provide vouchers for discounts on medical appointments for artists.

Springboard also co-sponsors health fairs where artists can get flu shots and other preventive screenings. And, finally, the group publishes the “Guide to Healthcare for Minnesota Artists,” which involved plodding through the health-care information maze to find low-cost services. If an artist’s question can’t be answered in the guide, then Springboard will spring into action with more fancy footwork. 

“There are a lot of great resources and low-cost clinics, but it’s a really complicated system to navigate,” Zabel says.

Still, she knows these aren’t long-term solutions.

“It’s a Band-Aid to help artists with their immediate needs so they can get care to prevent major health disasters,” Zabel says. “The five of us who work here aren’t going to be able to address everything, so that’s why we’ve chosen to focus on health care — how artists can get help today to go to the doctor today … and not when it gets to the emergency stage.” 

So, how much does a colonoscopy cost? $800 to $2,000, according to Zabel. But it turns out Springboard was able to track down a free screening for the uninsured artist through a pilot program between the Minnesota Department of Health and the American Cancer Society.

“This wasn’t an ongoing program, but it’s a good example of how finding these resources is a moving target,” she says.

Question for readers: Leave it to artists to come up with a creative solution — focusing more on obtaining health care than health insurance. Could a similar system work for the general population?

Casey Selix is a news editor and writer for MinnPost.com. She can be reached at cselix [at] minnpost [dot] com.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Jan Hively on 08/13/2008 - 11:37 am.

    Then there are the singles and young families who have purchased crisis-only health care policies that cover only what costs $5,000 and up. They owrry and struggle to stay away from doctors and medical costs that they can’t afford —- which include preventative health care. That deficiency will end up diminishing overall health and expanding public costs.

  2. Submitted by Dan Hoxworth on 08/13/2008 - 11:21 am.

    Thank you for your illuminating story.

    As a parent of two recent college graduates, I see the impact health care has on their decision-making. Creative, energetic college grads are driven to make decisions on employment and career by the availability and unaffordability of health care coverage.

    As the story points out, this has strong implications for artists and creative types. Those creative types also include entrepreneurs and people wanting to “do their own thing.” The cost of this on our economic growth, new product development etc are unknown. We need to see providing health insurance as a vehicle for stimulating our entrepreneurial economy and unleashing the creativity of many individuals. There are strong economic benefits that can come from allowing people from taking financial risks and making important investments without having to risk their health and all of their assets (as a sudden major illness might).

    Finally, it is important to note that while the legislature made a major step forward in providing stop gap coverage for those up to 25 through their parent’s health plans, State employees and their health plans were exempted from this requirement. What hypocrisy! Why don’t the children of state employees deserve the same treatment as all other Minnesotans?–Two steps forward and one step back.

    Let’s move the health care discussion into a debate on how we can allow people the freedom and mobility to maximize their contributions to society without inordinate risk.

  3. Submitted by Kassie Church on 08/13/2008 - 11:48 am.

    But why do college kids get this stop gap insurance, but so many others in society don’t? Also, the recent college grad who wasn’t on their parents’ insurance, but on school insurance, also do not get the stop gap insurance.

    Government is clearly playing favorites here. We need to offer affordable or free insurance to ALL Minnesotans, not just the ones we deem worthy.

  4. Submitted by Amy Wilde on 08/13/2008 - 12:29 pm.

    PrimeWest Health, a county-owned and managed care plan for people on Medical Assistance and Minnesota Care and dual-eligible elderly/disabled people in 13 rural MN counties, was awarded a $200,000 MN Dept. of Health grant last summer to develop a shared buy-in coverage program for moderate-income, self-employed people. We researched effective programs across the nation and developed “Values Health” and were prepared to offer it to uninsured people in 10 of our counties, beginning Jan. 1, 2009. Unfortunately, this low-cost, innovative pilot project was not included in the health reform bill which passed the legislature this spring, so, in effect, the state grant was wasted.
    Values Health had bipartisan support from a number of rural legislators and also a few progressive urban/suburban ones. It included chronic disease management, wellness incentives and a “health care home” model. Costs were to be shared among the employee, small employers (or family farms) and modest MN Health Care Access Fund resources. However, it apparently did not fit the “urban” model of utilizing private health plans for new programs instead of ones run by counties.
    (FYI: 28 rural MN counties run their own Medicaid programs. We got into this because private plans had, over the years, lacked accountability and ongoing commitment to low-income residents of lightly-populated rural areas. PrimeWest Health has been fiscally sound for all six years it has been contracting with the state for care, as well as meeting quality measures and incorporating effective chronic-disease management.)
    We hope “Values Health” can be incorporated at some future date, and eventually replicated in other areas, but as time passes, the projections would need to be re-done–requiring additional development funding.
    Amy Wilde
    Meeker County Commissioner and PrimeWest Health Joint Powers Board member

  5. Submitted by Lynn VanDervort on 08/13/2008 - 07:10 pm.

    I find it extremely ironic that we pay insurance companies good money so they can wiggle and worm their way out of actually paying for health care. I have more than one acquaintence working in the ‘health care’ industry and their job is to DENY care.

    It’s time to stop wasting 31-cents of every health care dollar on **marketing and administration** (so sayeth the New England Journal of Medicine). It’s time to take the insurance industry out of health care and put a single payer in place (and not government – it can be a separately annoited commission).

    There are two things driving the economy these days – health care and energy. Think about how many people are staying in dead end jobs – instead of creating new businesses and economies – all because they fear either bankruptcy or illness and death because they would have no good way to pay for health care.

    …and people wonder why we are in a recession. The economy would take off like a rocket if we would assure people they could receive health care when they needed it!

    There is no such thing as free – but if we all (individuals and employers) put in a percentage of our income/profits toward paying for health care – and assure that everyone could use health care – then more people would get preventive services, minorities and poor people would gain access. Not only that, but I’d bet that business would come out ahead over what they are paying now to provide ‘benefits’ for their workers.

    The only losers – would be insurance companies!

    It’s time to make health care a human right – not a commodity!

  6. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/13/2008 - 01:50 pm.

    It’s not just artists who are in this quandary. I’m a self-employed translator, and although I made “too much” money for Medicaid or Minnesota Care, the only insurance for which I can afford the monthly premiums has a $5,000 deductible and no coverage for preventive care.

    When I lived in Oregon, I belonged to an HMO that had no deductibles but high co-pays. That actually worked better for me. Everything, including diagnostic tests, was less than $100.

    I haven’t had any of the standard diagnostic tests since I moved back here in 2003, not with them costing three or four figures each.

    I hate-hate-hate deductibles. I would put up with higher copays if I could just get rid of those deductibles, but sad to say, this option seems not to exist in Minnesota.

    Oh, and before somebody writes and tells me how wonderful Health Savings Accounts are, those are just prepayments of high deductibles and the monthly premiums are actually MORE than for conventional insurance.

  7. Submitted by Kassie Church on 08/13/2008 - 03:23 pm.

    Karen, I won’t tell you how Health Savings Accounts are, because they are not.

    I will tell you about a variety of programs available. Depending on your age and income, you may be available for the Family Planning Program. It is only good for annual exams, STD testing and birth control, but it is a start. In addition, places like NorthPoint have programs for people who do not have insurance, like working out payment plans. I hear they charge much less than other medical stuff. Check out other community clinics too.

    It is super important that you do what you can to get those preventative exams.

  8. Submitted by Rosa Tock on 08/13/2008 - 04:16 pm.

    I find this article very insightful. It reveals very interesting information and data to take in consideration when talking about health care policy and universal health care. Regarding minorities, evidently it is important to note that disparity still exists: although minorities or people of color only represent approximately 14% of Minnesota’s total population, they are the most likely to be uninsured. As a matter of fact, as pointed out by the article, 19% of Latinos are uninsured and almost 15% of Blacks are uninsured. However, the article does not mention that Latinos and Blacks represent ONLY 4% and 5.2% of the population respectively. This disparity is pretty significant and alarming when compared to the ratio of white people uninsured, apparentely 1:1. The percentage of white uninsured is greater because their share of the population is also greater.

  9. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/13/2008 - 04:25 pm.

    Tying insurance to employment, low premium/high deductible policies, health savings accounts, letting insurance companies be more “creative” in developing policies that poor people can afford (by reducing coverage for expensive illnesses) — all these false “solutions” search for “coverage” and evade an essential question that your article does pose: Would it be better to focus on health CARE instead of health INSURANCE?

    Check out John Conyers’ (D-MI) legislation for universal single-payer health CARE (HR 676) which would automatically enroll every American. We would knock at least a third off our national health care bill while improving the general health of our population, including the 46-47 million now uninsured. For more information, also see http://www.pnhp.org.

    And see Senator John Marty’s (DFL Roseville) single-payer plan for all Minnesotans that could show other states how it can be done right. And save Minnesota money instead of running many millions over budget like the much-touted but probably failing Massachusetts Plan for “coverage.” See http://www.minnesotahealthplan.org.

    And bug your representatives and senators about their failure to stand up to the insurance lobbies that oppose single-payer. Should their allegiance be to that industry or to us V – O – T – E – R – S?

  10. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 08/31/2008 - 03:07 am.

    The Prime West Health story above has occured repeatedly without acceptance by central government. It seems that the national control of the problem has been pre-selected as the only road available. In the 1980’s, as a member of the SanMateo County Medical Society in California, we were given a trial shot at accepting the responsibility to care for all MediCal eligible under a single grant just a bit lower than the prior years budgeted amount for the County. Cooperation between the MedicalSociety and the Hospitals created an accepted fee schedule equal to the prior years rates and administered by the Medical Society. The result after the trial year was several hundred thousand dollars savings. The net of that success and an offer to continue operating under that system for the County was a refusal to do so by the combined California and Federal administrators. It seems that success is not a decision criterium when it comes to health planning.

Leave a Reply