Legislators consider options for covering uninsured

Monday, October 31, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:36 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Social advocates say health care for the uninsured is a major problem, one that’s only getting worse in Missouri after the state knocked thousands off Medicaid this year and increased requirements for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

But there’s no easy solution to the issue. A panel of lawmakers working to overhaul the Medicaid health insurance system for the poor says they must also deal with the uninsured but haven’t yet figured out the course to take.

Advocates warn that if the problem is not addressed, government programs and those with private insurance will pay for it in the long run.

Families USA, a Washington-based health care advocacy group, estimates that 12.2 percent of Missourians, or about 702,000, will be uninsured for all of 2005. Also, they say, people without insurance tend to wind up in emergency rooms for treatment, a costly alternative that can delay care for those with critical health issues, taxes government resources and causes private insurance rates to rise.

Hospitals believe they’re seeing more uninsured patients because of the Medicaid cuts, but it’s too soon to provide specific data, said Daniel Landon, who handles legislative issues for the Missouri Hospital Association.

Leslie Reed, who works on health policy issues for the Missouri Foundation for Health, said people with health insurance are healthier and more productive, which improves the state’s economy.

The legislature’s Medicaid Reform Commission is studying ways to address the uninsured as it works toward recommendations for lawmakers to tackle next year.

Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, a leader of the commission, wants to offer tax breaks to encourage employers that don’t offer workers health benefits to start.

Sen. Pat Dougherty, D-St. Louis, said the commission must discuss requiring health insurance coverage — starting with making it easier for companies to provide the insurance, but using government programs as a backstop for those too sick to work.

All the ideas, though, are just that at this point — and as some lawmakers pointed out, liking them and being able to afford them are two very different things.

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