Gov. Bill Richardson promises to try again in 2005 his plan to put some 600,000 public employees and retirees into a single health-insurance purchasing pool. While this plan would create a huge state institution that will not do much, if anything at all, for state and public employees, it does not address some of the serious health care problems we face in New Mexico.

The aims of any down-to-earth health care policy for New Mexico should be first to attract more physicians and other care providers to New Mexico; second to remove the vestigial gross receipt tax on out-of-pocket medical expenditures; and, third, examine the issue of the high rate of the uninsured in New Mexico.

The national rate of uninsured steadily, but slowly, increased from 12.9 percent in 1987 to 16.3 percent in 1998. Then it made a sharp turn and moved downward to 14.2 percent in 2000 and upward to 15.2 percent in 2002. The apparent cycle in recent years is mainly in response to changes in unemployment and health care costs. In the near future, when the unemployment rate will continue to decline, the national rate of uninsured will change course and turn southward. It is too early to make predictions about the long-run trend. In what follows I focus on interstate insurance comparisons.

The proportion of persons without medical insurance in New Mexico is one of the highest in the United States. Indeed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 14.6 percent of all Americans were without any insurance in 2001. Iowa , with 7.5 percent, had the lowest rate; Texas, with 23.5 percent had the highest rate; New Mexico, with 20.7 percent was the second highest.

I applied statistical procedures using Census 1999 and 2000 data for all the states for estimating the impact of economic and social variables on the rate of uninsured. First, I found that an increase of average personal income by $1,000 is expected to reduce the rate of the uninsured by 0.45 of one percentage point. Second, a one percentage point increase in the number of Hispanics is expected to result in a rise of one-third of one percentage point of uninsured persons. Third, a one percentage point increase in the ratio of blacks in total population is expected to result in only one-tenth of one percentage point increase in uninsured persons.

Why Hispanics are less likely than non-Hispanic whites to be covered by health insurance is a puzzle. New Mexico should support a study to explore this issue. Additionally, policy-makers should focus on the uninsured who are extremely poor, chronically ill or disabled. For starters, not all uninsured persons deserve subsidized medical care even when they earn low incomes. Consider young adults who just graduated from college. In general, these young adults are relatively more likely to contract HIV, suffer violent injuries in car accidents, and, if they are females, become pregnant. But, between their feeling of invincibility and small bank accounts, graduates shun inexpensive short-term plans.

Or, consider adults who are temporarily unemployed or in job transition and being aware of the de facto subsidized health care for the uninsured, fail to continue insurance by COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act). Or, how about those who retire before qualifying for Medicare but decide not to buy an individual health plan because it is surprisingly more expensive than they imagined.

Finally, there are the risk lovers for whom gambling, no matter in what form, is fun. It is likely that the availability of Health Saving Accounts (HSA) signed into law by President Bush in 2003 will induce some of the above to insure themselves: HSA will give them the same tax advantages now granted to mostly all other groups.

But we cannot ignore the truly needy. Medicaid in New Mexico is very generous to children, including medically fragile children, the disabled, the aged who require institutional care and a variety of other needy persons, such as the blind. There is a subgroup, however, of extremely poor, chronically ill, or a combination of the above, adults who are uninsured and do not qualify for Medicaid. As an illustration, consider a single parent- a mother with two children- earning $20,000, or a married couple earning $20,000 in which one spouse is chronically ill. Instead of rushing to embrace a grandiose plan creating a huge pool for state and local government employees, our elected leaders should focus on the extremely poor and chronically ill. We need a solid economic study, based on a fresh survey of uninsured persons in New Mexico. Such a survey should sort the uninsured not only by the traditional explanatory factors- income, ethnicity, age and education- but also by Medicaid eligibility, unemployment status, job transition, recent graduation from college, being chronically ill and so on. The order of magnitude of the number of the truly needy among the uninsured is essential before any sound policy regarding the medically uninsured can be considered.

Appendix

A Statistical Estimate of the Average Number of Physicians per 100,000 Residents in 1998 as a Linear Function of Personal Income, Medicare Expenditures per Enrollee and Medicaid Expenditures Per Recipient and per Capita

 

Regression 1

Constant Personal Income1998

Medicare Expenditures per Enrollee2000 Medicaid Expenditures per Recipient2000

Medicaid Expenditures per Capita2000 Adjusted R2
Coefficient -233.89 0.009 0.037 0.011   0.68
t-ratio -4.8 4.2 5.8 1.5    
             
Regression 2
Coefficient -203.19 0.009 0.023  

0.166

0.79

t-ratio -5.11 5.6 3.9   5.35  

A Statistical Estimate of the Percentage Uninsured as a Linear Function of Personal Income, Hispanic and Black as Percents of Total Population, Educational Attainment and age

The Data are for 51 States

 

Constant Personal Income 1999 Persons of Hispanic or Latino Origin as Percent of Total Population2000 Black or African American as Percent of Total Population2000 Educational Attainment2000* People 18 to 24 Years Old: Percent of Total Population2000 Adjusted R2
Coefficient 18.08 -0.00045 0.33 0.106 0.072 -0.291 0.58
t-ratio 1.9 -4.2 7.3 2.5 0.6 -0.76

Treat Sick Tax Policy: First, Undo the Harm from 2004 Legislature
Health Savings Accounts Cure Patients of Blind Consumption