Fewer uninsured Massachusetts residents were fined in ‘08

John P. Kelly

Young, single, male and poor.

That’s the profile of the uninsured that has emerged from a state report on Massachusetts’ universal health care system.

The report says fewer residents were penalized for lacking health insurance last year than the year before.

The Department of Revenue issued $16.4 million in fines to 45,000 tax filers who lacked insurance but were deemed able to afford coverage. There were 60,000 fines doled out in 2007, the first year residents had to prove coverage under a state mandate.

The increased numbers of insured residents may be partly the result of higher fines. A flat $219 penalty in 2007 increased last year to $79 for every month a person older than 26 went without coverage.

The penalty is set to increase again in 2010, to $93 a month, or $1,116 for the year. This year’s monthly penalty is $89. Younger adults face lower fines.

The Department of Revenue report, released Wednesday, says 2008 fines totaling $13 million have been paid and put toward the state’s health insurance trust fund. About 8,000 additional uninsured filers have appealed their fines.

Dick Powers, spokesman for the Massachusetts Health Connector, called the report further validation that the state’s 2006 landmark health care law is succeeding.

“The intention of health care reform is not to penalize them; it’s to insure them,” Powers said.

Of nearly 4 million tax filers, 296,000 had no insurance coverage for part or all of last year, the report says. Most were exempt because of their income level or, in a few cases, religious background.

Powers said residents without insurance are “mostly young, single, male, and poor.”

The report does not account for children, senior citizens or other residents exempt from filing tax returns. But it concludes that 96.4 percent of tax filers had insurance at some point in 2008, up from about 95 percent the year before.

“Folks nationally may take a look at that and say, “If it could work in Massachusetts, could it work elsewhere,” said Robert Bliss, spokesman for the state Department of Revenue.

Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said the public seems to have accepted the law.

“There is little evidence of people bucking the system,” he said, “but the key – if this is going to hold together over time – is doing something about cost.”

Patriot Ledger writer John P. Kelly may be reached at jkelly@ledger.com.