Ranks of uninsured growing in county

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Nearly 43,000 Clark County residents were without health insurance in 2008, and that number is expected to rise to nearly 63,000 by the end of 2011, which will leave 14 percent of the county’s population without coverage, according to new numbers from state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler.

The growth locally in the uninsured population matches the trend statewide. The number of Washington residents without health insurance will soon reach 1 million, Kreidler said. Among certain populations, such as rural, working-age adults, nearly one in four people are without health coverage.

“The widespread and growing lack of health insurance in Washington state is hurting families, communities and our state’s economy,” Kreidler said in releasing the numbers.

Clark County’s percentage of uninsured residents is about the same as that in the Puget Sound area, but lower than in most counties in Eastern Washington.

Statewide, the cost of “uncompensated” care — charity cases and uncollected medical debts — has increased by 80 percent since 2002, and is expected to reach $1 billion annually by 2011, or even sooner if the 2010 Legislature approves deep cuts to the state’s health care budget.

In Clark County, the cost of uncollected medical debts and charity care by hospitals and other health care providers will reach $64 million by the end of 2011, according to Kreidler’s office.

At Southwest Washington Medical Center, for example, the cost of charity care shot up from $3.7 million in 2003 to $26.3 million in 2008. The cost of uncollected medical debt jumped from $12.2 million to $29.7 million over that same period.

“I think we often assume the uninsured simply go without the treatment they need,” said medical center spokesman Ken Cole, “but in reality, they often end up in the emergency department after postponing treatment until their health crisis is acute. This artificially amplifies the cost of caring for the uninsured, whose health issues could be better managed in a doctor’s office or primary care setting. The added costs are passed on to all of us who are insured in the form of higher rates across the system.”

Statewide, each family with health insurance pays an average of $917 annually to help subsidize the uninsured; each individual pays an average of $457.

Kreidler has been a strong advocate for national health care reform to reduce the number of uninsured Americans. His spokesman, Rich Roesler, said Tuesday that regardless of what happens to that effort in Congress in the new year, the latest state projections are likely to hold up.

“Key provisions don’t take effect until 2013,” he said. “You don’t turn around a tanker overnight.”

Assuming that a reform bill does pass Congress and is signed into law by President Obama, a few provisions would take effect right away, Roesler noted — including one allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance policies until the age of 26 or 27.

“But it’s clear that things will get worse before they get better,” he said.