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MINNEAPOLIS -- The number of uninsured Minnesotans dropped dramatically since September, before the state's health exchange began, according to a new study by a research team based at the U of M.

The new report by the State Health Access Data Assistance Center, or SHADAC, found the number of residents without health coverage fell from 445,000 to 264,500 between Sept. 1, 2013 and May 1, 2014. That's a drop of 180,000 or 40 percent.

"The second major finding is that most of that decline in the uninsured was driven by people gaining coverage through state public insurance programs, through Minnesota Care or Medicaid," Julie Sonier, the chief author of the study, told KARE.

The study was funded with a grant from the Robert Wood Foundation's State Health Reform Assistant Network, and requested by the MNsure, the state's health exchange.

The SHADAC researchers gauge Minnesotan's uninsured segment in a comprehensive survey once every two years, and the September study found 8.2 percent of the state's residents lacked health coverage at that time.

The updated study moves that figure to 4.9 percent of the state's residents, which means 95.1 percent of Minnesotans now have access to health care either through employer-based group plans, private non-group plans, Medicare or government programs.

"It isn't at all surprising to us that when people show up to sign up for coverage then they find out they're eligible for public coverage," Sonier explained, noting that previous research has shown two-thirds of those eligible for government health plans never apply for them.

"Awareness is a major barrier. Some aren't aware that the plans exists, and others aren't aware they can qualify for them," said Sonier.

The study also found the number or Minnesotans who are enrolled in private non-group plans also rose by 36-thousand since September, which amounts to a 12.5 percent increase in that market segment.

Sonier said the next stage for researchers is to study the demographics of the newly covered, especially to get a handle on the age and employment status of those who are getting coverage through MnSure and other means.

Political reactions

Governor Mark Dayton reacted to the positive numbers by issuing a press release asserting health care reform is working in Minnesota.

White House press secretary Jay Carney re-tweeted a link to the study to his 500,000 Twitter followers.

The Republican Party of Minnesota, on the other hand, countered with a press release equating a vote against Gov. Dayton with a vote against ObamaCare. The Republican message proved a link to a new attack ad by the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a conservative group.

"ObamaCare has been a disaster and Dayton's MnSure has made it even worse, but Dayton championed MnSure," a narrator is heard saying in the ad.

It's followed by a clip from a Dayton press conference from October 22 of 2013 saying, "I think it's performed phenomenally well."

That's excerpted from a longer statement he made to the press, which was, ""I think the MNsure beginning has been not perfect, but given the complexity and the scope of the project, I think it's performed phenomenally well."

MNsure's roll-out in October was plagued by technical glitches that lasted months and made it difficult for many who attempted to enroll on-line and then shop for health plans. Long waiting times for those seeking assistance by phone received extensive press coverage and became fodder for opponents of health reform at the State Capitol.

The original CEO resigned and was replaced by a Dept. of Human Services official. But, by the end of May, 227,000 Minnesotans had purchased health coverage or enrolled in government subsidized plans using MNsure as the portal.

Republicans are still counting on the health exchange's rough start to be a political liability for Dayton, and his support of the ACA and MNsure will be a key part of his opponents' rhetoric.

Affordable coverage

But for thousands the health exchange opened a door to affordable coverage.

"I could not afford my premiums anymore. They were going up, let alone trying to afford the deductibles," Mary Anne Beers of Lake Elmo told KARE.

She stopped working full-time so she could become a caregiver for her ailing mother, a role she embraced but one that took a toll financially.

"Because of my care giving role it's been difficult to find even a part-time job. Care giving doesn't really translate well on a resume," Beers, who worked for years in the financial industry, explained.

When she tried to buy private insurance through Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota she was denied originally.

"They found out that I had joined a caregivers' support group and decided I was a 'mental health coverage risk'," Beers recalled.

After intervention by the Minnesota Attorney General's office, Blue Cross agreed to sell Beers a policy for $464 per month but said that it would exclude mental health coverage.

The insurer had decided Beers' membership in a caregiver support group led by a psychologist qualified as a preexisting condition. And while Beers disputed that finding, the Affordable Care Act made preexisting conditions a moot point.

Like thousands of others Beers went to the MNsure exchange hoping to find private coverage and was pleasantly surprised to learn she qualified for a public plan with low co-pays administered by Health Partners.

"It's just an amazing blessing to me that I can go and do this, and I don't have to worry about this, and I'm not paying $500 a month anymore," Beers said.

"I like the providers and I've been able to get some overdue physical therapy that I probably wouldn't put off indefinitely without this health coverage."

Beers said she realizes that if she returns to the work force she may have a harder time qualifying for the plan she got through MNsure, but she's hopeful she'll find other affordable options when that day comes.

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