Nearly one out of four of Oregon’s low-income working parents are uninsured according to an analysis of census data released today by the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and by the Oregon Center for Public Policy. While Oregon’s new Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is providing coverage to more children in low-income working families, the parents who head those families remain at risk of going without health insurance coverage under the Oregon Health Plan and the state’s new private insurance subsidy program.
The data released today comes from a study of Census Bureau figures. The Census Bureau data covers 1995-1997, and comes from the Bureau’s 1996-1998 March Current Population Surveys. The figures include only those parents who worked 13 or more weeks during the year.
According to the figures, in the mid-1990s there were 194,000 working parents in Oregon with income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($27,300 a year for a family of three in 1998). Nearly one quarter (24 percent or 47,000) of these low-income working parents were uninsured.
The problem was even more extreme among the 58,000 working parents in Oregon with income below 100 percent of the federal poverty level ($13,650 a year for a family of three in 1998). Over one-third (34 percent or 20,000) of these working poor parents lacked health insurance coverage. The data was released on the heels of a release two weeks ago showing widespread uninsurance among Oregon’s children.
“Oregon is no longer a leader nor on the cutting edge of providing health insurance for working, low-income parents,” said Charles Sheketoff, executive director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy. “We’re now just a little better than average when compared to the rest of the nation. Oregon must take bold new steps forward if she wants to regain her leadership and solve this serious problem.”
The Oregon Health Plan has three main components designed to reduce the uninsurance rate among low-income Oregonians: (1) the Oregon Health Plan Medicaid program, a state and federally funded program for people with incomes below poverty; (2) the Child Health Insurance Program, a state and federally funded program for low-income children with incomes up to 170 percent of poverty; and (3) the Family Health Insurance Assistance Program, a state-only funded private insurance subsidy program for people with incomes up to 170 percent of poverty.
Sheketoff noted that the insurance subsidy program, which went into effect in mid-1998, is slated to provide insurance to only 7,000 to 8,000 low-income Oregonians through the 1999-01 biennium. About two-thirds of those covered by the program today are adults, one-third are children.
“The insurance subsidy program may end up helping only about 5,000 adults, while there are 47,000 low-income working parents with children who lack coverage,” said Sheketoff. “By its very design the insurance subsidy program will fail to solve the problem. It only covers people who are uninsured for six or more months,” said Sheketoff. “Also, many states have chosen to expand their Medicaid program so they can draw on the federal tax dollars to support their efforts to insure working parents. Oregon health officials have failed to consider that option, and instead are making Oregon taxpayers pick up the entire tab through an insurance subsidy program.”
“Oregonians’ tax dollars would go further-insure more working low-income parents-if we expanded the Oregon Health Plan Medicaid program,” said Sheketoff. “The 1996 federal welfare reform law provides Oregon the authority. We need to seize the opportunity.”
The Oregon Health Plan Medicaid program was designed to provide insurance to everyone below the federal poverty level. Started in February 1994, it is helping fewer Oregonians today than it did in 1995 a year and a half after the program first got underway. By August 1995, Oregon had added over 130,000 Oregonians to the state’s Medicaid roles under the new plan, while today there are only about 82,000 “new eligibles.”
“The decline is due to decisions by policy makers to reduce funding and limit eligibility, and decisions by state health plan officials to stop aggressive outreach and recruitment efforts,” said Sheketoff. “For too many low-income working parents, the Oregon Health Plan is one of Oregon’s best kept secrets and beyond their reach,” said Sheketoff.
The number of low-income working parents without insurance is likely to increase. Sheketoff gives three reasons. First, as welfare roles continue to decline, there will be more low-income parents struggling to get by in the low wage labor market without health insurance. Second, eligibility for the Oregon Health Plan has not been adjusted to keep up with the voter mandated increase in the minimum wage. Third, the state’s insurance subsidy program is neither designed nor funded to meet the current need or to increase with the increased need.
The state’s Oregon Health Plan Medicaid program and the new insurance subsidy program are both “designed and budgeted to fail in solving the problem of assuring that all working low-income parents have health insurance” according to Sheketoff.
A single parent with two children working full-time at $7.00 per hour – 50 cents above the minimum wage and less than the average starting wage for single parents leaving welfare – is not eligible for the Oregon Health Plan. Because the insurance subsidy program is capped at 8,000 participants, she is likely to be uninsured while on a waiting list for that program.
Sheketoff said that some working single parents have to chose between health insurance for themselves and higher wage jobs or child support for their children. “A single parent working at minimum wage today cannot accept more than $11 in child support for her two children-or $11 per month in increased pay from wages-without losing Oregon Health Plan eligibility.”
“There’s been a lot of talk lately about children’s need for health insurance. Policy makers should not forget that low-income working parents need insurance, too,” said Sheketoff.
The report, “Employed But Not Insured, A State by State Analysis of the Number of Low-Income Working Parents Who Lack Health Insurance” is available from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (tel. 202-408-1080; www.cbpp.org). The Oregon Center for Public Policy is a Silverton-based nonpartisan research group that analyzes budget and tax issues and government programs, and their impacts on low to moderate-income Oregonians.