See more of the story

How many people in your ZIP code have health insurance? A clickable new map can answer that question about your community and others around the state, thanks to pioneering work by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Making this data easy to use and available to the public could yield innovative solutions to a persistent problem — how to reach the small but still troubling percentage of Minnesotans who don’t have coverage.

Researchers at the school are known nationally for their ability to crunch data in ways that yield insights into health care costs, use and access. The latest project, unveiled Nov. 5, is a pragmatic step as Minnesota’s uninsured rate rises. Last year, state health officials reported “one of its largest, one-time increases in the rate of people without health insurance since 2001. The uninsured rate rose from 4.3 percent in 2015 to 6.3 percent, leaving approximately 349,000 Minnesotans without coverage.”

Even before the increase, however, too many people lacked coverage. It’s especially disturbing because many likely could have qualified for medical assistance, MinnesotaCare or instant financial aid to help pay for monthly private insurance premiums.

By clicking on the U’s map, which is powered by reliable U.S. Census data, users can see where the state has “hot spots” of uninsured people (go to tinyurl.com/InsuranceMap). Another view shows the uninsured rate by ZIP code, as well the total count of people who are uninsured in that area. Those who want even more detail can dive into an accompanying spreadsheet.

The Minnesota ZIP code with the highest uninsured rate is 56434, which includes the tiny town of Aldrich in the north-central part of the state. Of the 324 people living in that ZIP code, 147 lack health insurance. That’s an astounding 45.4%. The ZIP code with the lowest uninsured rate is 56310, which includes the Stearns County community of Avon. Just 1.3% of the 5,499 who live in that area aren’t insured. An Eden Prairie ZIP code, 55347, came in second with an uninsured rate of 1.7%.

Map users can also zoom out to look at regional “hot spots” — broader areas with a high uninsured rate. The hot spots include southern Minnesota’s Amish communities, areas near American Indian reservations and ZIP codes spanning Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood. Other hot spots are located in areas where big food producers rely on immigrant workers.

Nonprofits that help people access health insurance understandably are praising the U’s new data tool. Meghan Kimmel of Portico Healthnet said it will help her organization better target outreach. The detailed data is also yielding new insights and strategies. For example, Portico’s experts were surprised by a relatively high uninsured rate in one metro ZIP code cluster. They did a deeper analysis and realized that the area had many renters and that the rents were high.

Tenants may have assumed they couldn’t afford insurance and not even evaluated available options. Portico hopes to work with housing organizations in the area to increase awareness of programs that can help renters or their kids get covered.

Efforts like this aren’t revolutionary, but they add up. The U’s new tool, which was supported by a grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation of Minnesota, is an important step in nudging the uninsured rate closer to zero. The Minnesota researchers have the capacity to develop the same detailed data beyond our borders and would like to expand their work. Other states should take them up on that.