Ask Susette Schwartz whether she’s surprised by a new report that shows thousands more Kansans going without health insurance, and she sighs.
“Well, no,” said Schwartz, CEO of Hunter Health Clinic in Wichita, a safety net clinic that serves uninsured and underinsured people as well as those with insurance.
“It’s just horrendous,” she said. “Our number of patients has gone up, and keeps going up, and we just can’t keep doing this.”
The U.S. Census Bureau on Wednesday released estimates of health insurance coverage for every state and each of the nation’s nearly 3,200 counties.
The report showed that more than 380,000 Kansas residents under age 65 – about 15.8 percent of that age group – did not have health insurance in 2010, up from 14.6 percent the previous year.
For Wichita, the report was even more grim. More than 17 percent of Sedgwick County residents under 65 – nearly 75,000 – did not have health insurance in 2010, the latest year data is available. That’s 10,000 more uninsured people than the previous year and nearly 30,000 more than 2005, according to the report.
“I think we all know, with the economic downturn, that a lot of folks that did have employment are now unemployed or underemployed,” said Dave Sanford, CEO of GraceMed, another network of safety net clinics.
“We saw our demand increase several years ago, and it really hasn’t stopped,” he said. “One of the challenges we have is continuing to keep up with the demand for care.”
Since 2005, the census report has broken down the statewide estimates by age groups, gender, race and Hispanic origin. For the first time this year, the report estimates health coverage at the county level for those in the 50 to 64 age group.
That inclusion “allows tracking of this population, which is more likely to consume health care compared with younger age groups,” the report said.
Statewide in 2010, about 60,800 people ages 50 to 64 – 11.4 percent – did not have health insurance.
Local numbers mirrored the state: In Sedgwick County, about 12 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds did not have coverage in 2010; in Butler County, about 10 percent; and in Harvey County, about 11 percent.
The estimates are based on statistical models combining data from a variety of sources, including the American Community Survey, Census Bureau population estimates, federal tax returns, Medicaid participation records and 2000 Census statistics.
For Schwartz, the Hunter Health Clinic executive, all those numbers add up to more people at the clinic’s five sites in Wichita. Last year, Hunter Health served about 36,000 people with about 84,000 patient visits, she said. This year, the number of patients is more than 41,000.
About 70 percent of those patients are uninsured, Schwartz said.
“We’re still doing everything we’ve always done,” she said. “We’re just running out of resources, that’s the bottom line.”
Should President Obama’s national health care law go into effect – particularly a portion that would expand the Medicaid program for low-income Americans – about 20,000 of Hunter Health Clinic’s patients would have insurance, Schwartz said.
More importantly, she said, those patients likely would get more regular and preventive care that could keep them out of more costly emergency rooms.
“When we have this many people uninsured, we’re not saving money, we’re spending it,” Schwartz said. “If they’re not getting the prevention they need, they’re going to be in the hospitals, and that is so much more expensive.”
About a year ago, GraceMed acquired the Mother Mary Anne Clinic, an after-hours urgent care clinic for the uninsured and underinsured launched by Via Christi in 2008. The expansion allowed GraceMed to provide immediate care to more patients, as well as helping them deal with chronic conditions and receive follow-up care, Sanford said.
A project of the United Methodist Church, GraceMed also operates clinics at some Wichita public schools that provide low-cost medical and dental care on a sliding scale. Sanford said the longest wait times these days are for dental care.
“We secured one new dentist since last year, but whenever we have a new provider, word gets out and the demand gets that much more,” he said.
Schwartz, the Hunter Health executive, said Wednesday’s report from the Census Bureau illustrates a growing need for low- and no-cost health care, a demand she expects will keep going up along with the number of uninsured residents.
“We’ll just continue to do everything we can, but gosh, it’s hard.”