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Pioneer Editorial: Insure all Americans needed step

A new study released Tuesday shows again what should be the first step in reforming the nation's health care -- making sure all Americans have health insurance coverage.

The study, by Families USA, reports that about 1.1 million Minnesotans -- 24.1 percent of residents under age 65 -- were uninsured at some point during 2007-08. The health consumer organization adds that 755,000 of those uninsured Minnesotans, or 68.3 percent of the total, were uninsured for six months or more during that time.

Those numbers will most likely get worse, as more and more Minnesotans lose their jobs -- and their health insurance -- with the state's unemployment rate of 8.5 percent now keeping pace with the national jobless rate. Employees who do lose their jobs have the option of retaining their company-paid health insurance, only they must pay the full freight. That's often a figure too daunting for a newly unemployed family who then goes without.

That picture could get worse with Minnesota's ongoing budget talks that include filling a $6.4 billion budget hole. The federal economic stimulus package is providing $2 billion to help fill that hole, and should help stave off serious cuts to MinnesotaCare, the state's health insurance program for the working poor. Prior to that, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty had proposed reductions that could have taken 80,000 Minnesotans off that program and into the ranks of the uninsured. But the stimulus monies run out in 2011, and Pawlenty would then ax 113,000 Minnesotans from state-subsidized health care.

The Families USA report reveals that more than four out of five of Minnesota's uninsured, or 82.4 percent, were in working families, working full- or part-time jobs. And almost half, or 46.6 percent, of those individuals and families in Minnesota with incomes below twice the poverty line -- $42,400 of annual income for a family of four in 2008 -- went without health insurance at some point in 2007-08.

Failure to have health insurance will have individuals and families put off health care until serious problems arise and then they become more costly emergency room patients. And, if it doesn't bankrupt the family, the bill becomes the taxpayers' bill and at high cost.

The problem is not just Minnesota's -- the report shows that about 86.7 million Americans, or one out of three people under age 65, were uninsured at some point in 2007-08. Solutions need to be found at the national level, and is a reason why President Barack Obama wants to set aside $630 billion for health care reform.

Whether in Minnesota or nationally, the goal should be to put every American into health insurance coverage. A debate will rage forever whether health care should be provided by the private sector, socialized like many other industrialized countries in the world, or an Americanized hybrid of systems. But while that debate rages, efforts should proceed to insure all Americans -- either in state-subsidized programs or using state subsidized to give them private sector insurance.

Either way is cheaper in the long run than no health insurance at all, which is the unfortunate trend we're heading.