Study: 1 in 7 Alaskans are uninsured

Health care in the Last Frontier, like most things, is not cheap. And because of the high costs of medical services it’s not for everyone.

“The astonishing thing is that we spent $5.3 billion for medical care in 2005, yet 86,000 Alaskans are uninsured,” said John Riley, the physician assistant program coordinator for the department of health sciences at UAA.

He is referring to the results from a recently released Institute of Social and Economic Research survey on the costs of health care in Alaska by research consultant Mark Foster and ISER economics professor Scott Goldsmith.

That Alaskans spent an estimated $5.3 billion in 2005 _” up from $1.6 billion in 1991 – is just one of many findings that show a clear departure in the cost of living in Alaska compared with Outside.

Goldsmith said determining the reasons for the difference and the causes driving the drastic increase was the aim of the survey.

“Health care is more expensive in the U.S. than any other country in the world. But health care is even more expensive in Alaska than in the rest of the U.S.,” Goldsmith said. “There are a number of possible reasons for the high costs here. We need to figure out why costs are so high and then develop ways to bring those costs in line with the rest of the U.S.”

In addition to researching costs, Goldsmith and the researchers focused on the core components involved in health care.

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“There are three big issues related to health care-cost, access and quality,” Goldsmith said. “We have pretty good access and quality of care in Alaska. This is reflected in the good scores Alaska gets on the incidence of diseases, etc. However, we spend over $5 billion to get that access and quality. Other places can do it for a lot less. We need to make our system as efficient as possible without compromising access and quality of care.”

The survey found unusual numbers when reviewing a breakdown of costs for health care in the state, including who was providing service to Alaskans.

A comparison of the number of practicing dentists and doctors in the state against the national average shows there are 126 dentists for every 100,000 people in Alaska, versus the U.S. average of 58 per 100,000 in 2000. But there are 204 doctors here for every 100,000 people, versus the U.S. average of 235 in 2003.

There doesn’t seem to be any explanation to those types of findings, although one student has a guess.

“I guess dentists like to fish more,” said Eric Peltier, a junior aviation technology student at UAA.

While the smoking rate in Alaska is higher than the U.S., other results of the survey are encouraging. Infant mortality has decreased, and infectious disease has declined as well, but some problems, such as obesity, are growing.

“The exception to the improvements in health outcomes since 1990 is our skyrocketing obesity rate in Alaska,” Riley said. “Decreasing the burden of obesity is one of our prime public heath goals nationally and in Alaska.”

Health care professionals strive to educate patients on the preventive care necessary to lessen costs.

“If our prevention efforts were more widely implemented and our medical care was systematically applied and less wasteful, we could likely have sufficient resources to provide coverage for everyone,” Riley said. “Having good health should not depend on the size of your bank account.”

Students are among those who are most commonly uninsured.

Ethiopia Belay, a senior at UAA majoring in history and philosophy, said she thinks the costs of health care are not outweighed by the benefits.

“Because I don’t get sick often, or hurt, I chose not to have health care insurance,” Belay said. “I just feel that it’s just putting money into something that is not going to give me anything back.”

Other students think there is simply one factor at work: economics. Students like Peltier think it is simply supply and demand at work.

“I think doctors kind of have an monopoly _” they charge whatever they want, kind of like the cable service,” Peltier said. “They can charge whatever they want, but you’re going to pay.”