Feb. 10, 2003 – The number crunching is beginning in the first phase of a study that researchers hope will yield reliable statistics on who does and doesn't have health insurance in the Virgin Islands, and why.
Information gathered in a telephone survey conducted last fall of 1,764 households on St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John and Water Island by the University of the Virgin Islands Eastern Caribbean Center is now being analyzed by researchers at the University of Minnesota.
The telephone survey is part of a wider study being conducted by the Easten Caribbean Center of the local health insurance picture. The effort is being funded primarily by a $1.1 million grant from Health and Human Services, with the local government providing in-kind support.
(See "Insurance study's phone survey phase finished".)
A survey conducted in the 1990s found that about 30 percent of V.I. residents had no health insurance. If that statistic is confirmed by the analysis of the current, more extensive data gathered in recent months, the territory would rank below New Mexico, where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 28 percent of the population is uninsured — the highest rate of any of the 50 states.
Jacquline Hoop, project manager of the V.I. State Planning Group Project, expects to write the final report of the survey findings, which will be submitted to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
Hoop believes one reason for the territory's apparently high uninsured rate might be that about 30,000 Virgin Islanders work for small businesses employing four or fewer persons. These employers have the hardest time getting health insurance for their employees because availability is very limited and the cost is very expensive, she said.
According to Hoop, it's a common misconception about the uninsured that they are mainly poor. In fact, she said, they are mostly working people, working for such small businesses. She said she suspects the figures would be borne out looking at comparable small businesses on the mainland.
Frank Mills, ECC director and also director of the insurance survey project, said the objective of the research is to help the V.I. government find a solution to problems created by large numbers of residents lacking affordable health insurance.
In December, Mills said that earlier, less-extensive surveys had suggested that about one-third of V.I. residents have no health insurance. Officials at Roy L. Schneider Hospital have said that information supplied by patients on admission forms has indicated that the rate might be as high as 40 percent.
In the second phase of the study, researchers are "going to be doing a series of focus groups," Aletha Baumann, project survey coordinator, said. "The first series is for employers. We're going to be doing two on St. Thomas, two on St. Croix and one on St. John. She said she hopes to attract executives from businesses of all sizes and types throughout the territory.
A second round of focus groups starting in March will bring consumers together, she said, the aim being to gather information that will provide a balanced picture of what's available versus what's needed in terms of family health insurance. "They'll be able to tell us things like 'My company has health insurance for me but not for my kids, so when they're sick, I take them to the emergency room,'" she said.
By June, the researchers hope to hold a third round of focus groups in which both employers and consumers will be presented with a number of options developed from input obtained in earlier focus groups and telephone surveys. Baumann said the most important outcome of this sessions will be reaching consensus.
"We need to see both sides," Baumann said. "If we just go with what the employers are saying, we might come up with a solution that consumers would never buy into." Or vice versa.
Plans call for delivering the final report on the survey findings to Health and Human Services by the end of July.
Hoop says the Virgin Islands is the first U.S. territory to receive a federal grant to carry out research of this kind. "We have a definite need to expand health insurance, if you consider health insurance supports the hospitals and the community health centers," she said.
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