ST. PAUL - The number of Minnesotans without health insurance climbed by 17,563 last year, driving up the uninsured rate to 4.4 percent, but the state continues to have one of the best rates of overall medical coverage in the nation.
Altogether, 242,509 Minnesotans lacked health insurance in 2017, with black and Hispanic residents having the largest uninsured rates at 17 percent, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Sarah Orange, a policy advocate with the Minnesota Budget Project, says the new data suggest the newly uninsured had gotten coverage on the individual market and not through an employer. About 166,000 Minnesotans now use MNsure, the state-run health care marketplace, to buy insurance where they can qualify for tax credits.
Nationally, 8.8 percent of people, or 28.5 million, did not have health insurance at any point during 2017, according to the latest census figures. The national rates were not statistically different from 2016.
Has Obamacare fight had an impact?
Orange suspects the ongoing debate about repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, likely played a role in the uptick of uninsured. So far, Congress and the White House have made modifications to the law, but have been unable to agree on a plan to repeal it.
"You start to see how some of these prolonged and convoluted discussions about changes probably caused some uncertainty in our market," she said.
Orange cautioned that another uncertainty - the planned expiration of the health care provider tax at the end of 2019 - could lead to more Minnesotans being uninsured. The tax on medical providers raises about $700 million each year for the state's Health Care Access Fund that pays for MinnesotaCare and other programs.
"That has the potential to threaten affordable care options for Minnesotans depending on the choices our Legislature makes," Orange said.
DFL, GOP at odds over provider tax
Democrats have tried to extend the tax, but Republicans argue it is no longer needed because the federal government picks up much of the cost of health care programs for low-income residents and the working poor.
"MinnesotaCare can currently be funded without the 2 percent provider tax," said Rep. Matt Dean, a Dellwood Republican who chairs the House health and human services finance committee.
Dean says the Health Care Access Fund is outside the state's general fund that is adjusted every two years as lawmakers tweak government spending. That has led to the "bad temptation" of using the money for other programs, he said.
Alternatively, Orange argues the long-term stability of MinnesotaCare relies on the provider tax and other programs funded with its revenue are part of the original mission of keeping health care affordable, accessible and high quality.