THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

State’s health coverage still high

By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / June 9, 2010

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Massachusetts residents have largely been able to hang on to health insurance, despite the deep and lingering recession and widespread unemployment, according to a study released yesterday by the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

Based on a survey last fall, the report concluded that 4.8 percent of Massachusetts adults, age 18 to 64, were uninsured, largely unchanged from a year earlier and still the lowest in the nation. A groundbreaking 2006 law extended subsidized coverage to thousands of low and moderate-income Massachusetts residents who previously did not qualify for assistance.

“We all sort of were anticipating a drop in coverage, given the recession which has hit Massachusetts hard, so we were pleased to see that coverage levels held,’’ said Shanna Shulman, research and policy director at the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, which commissioned the report.

Compared with 2006, the percentage of uninsured adults has dropped 60 percent.

The study also found that the law closed or narrowed the state’s longtime racial and ethnic disparities in coverage, with adult members of minority groups now as likely as white residents to report they have insurance.

The Rev. Hurmon Hamilton, pastor of the Roxbury Presbyterian Church and president of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, called the findings “a ray of good news.’’

The organization was a prime supporter of the law, and Hamilton said that before it passed, it was easy to find members of his congregation who had not had health insurance for decades.

“Now I would be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t have health coverage,’’ Hamilton said.

By the fall of 2009, minorities were less likely than white adults to say that they went without health care because of the costs, the report said, attributing those gains to greater enrollment by minorities in the state’s subsidized insurance, which typically has lower charges for doctors’ visits and other care.

Despite the strong gains, some disparities exist. For instance, the report found that minorities were more likely to say they did not have a regular doctor and relied on hospital emergency rooms for routine care. They were also less likely to rate the quality of care they received as very good or excellent.

Hamilton said that the law has been a “wonderful step in the right direction,’’ but that it is “by no means the last chapter in the book of disparities.’’

“I would like to see us eliminate disparities in diabetes, prostate cancer, and hypertension, and we have a long way to go there,’’ he said.

Overall, support for the state’s health care law has remained unchanged since 2006, the study found, with about two-thirds of adults saying they continue to back the initiative.

But cost remains a challenge. One in five adults reported they did not receive some needed medical care in 2009, and about the same percentage said they had problems paying medical bills in 2009.

The study was based on a random telephone survey of 3,165 adults in October and November of 2009, and the data were compared to results obtained from similar surveys conducted during the previous three years.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.

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