Maine was one of only two states in the country to see a rise in the number of people without health insurance from 2012 to 2013, according to data released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The number of uninsured Mainers grew by 12,000 over that period, a 9 percent increase that brought the total number of people without insurance to 147,000, or 11.2 percent of the state’s population, according to the bureau’s annual American Community Survey. New Jersey was the other state to experience a rise in the number of its uninsured, at a rate that outpaced Maine’s.

Nationally, the number of uninsured people fell by 2 percent.

Even with the increase, Maine remains in the top one-third of U.S. states for the percentage of people who have insurance. However, the data released Tuesday left health care experts seeking an explanation for the rise. The answer may come Thursday when the Census Bureau releases a detailed breakdown of the states’ uninsured populations.

“Maine does stand out from the rest of the states,” said Matt Broaddus, a research analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. “There is something unique going on in Maine.”

The report quickly became fodder for the gubernatorial contest, as opponents of Republican Gov. Paul LePage criticized his decisions to reject a number of proposals to expand Medicaid – publicly funded health coverage for low-income Mainers – through the Affordable Care Act.

But LePage administration officials said the Medicaid decision had no impact on the census data, and suggestions otherwise “were nothing more than a theory.”

“In fact, 15 years of data shows that massive expansions of Medicaid did little or nothing to decrease the number of uninsured – so it seems unlikely the reverse would be true,” LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said in a written statement.

LePage’s adversaries argued the opposite. They criticized him for a 2012 proposal that eliminated Medicaid – known here as MaineCare – for about 30,000 people.

About 14,500 of those people would not have been captured in the survey released Tuesday because they didn’t lose coverage until January 2014. However, another 14,000 from that group lost MaineCare coverage in March 2013, within the period covered by the survey.

The data have a margin of error that means the number of uninsured could vary by up to 10,000 people.

Nationally, the number of uninsured was 42 million, or 14.5 percent of the U.S. population. Maine’s 11.2 percent rate was the second-highest in New England. Rhode Island had the highest rate of uninsured at 11.6 percent. Massachusetts, which in 2006 implemented a health care law that became the model for the Affordable Care Act, had the lowest rate in the country at 3.7 percent. Vermont, which is moving toward universal health care, posted the second-lowest rate in New England at 7.7 percent.

The early results prompted LePage’s opponents to assert that expanding Medicaid is the pathway to lowering Maine’s uninsured rate.

Maine is one of 23 states that have not participated in Medicaid expansion. New Jersey, the other state to see an increase in its uninsured rate, is one of 27 states and the District of Columbia that have joined Medicaid expansion.

Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said during a conference call that the data showed the states that expanded Medicaid “experienced much larger declines in their uninsured populations this year than states that rejected the expansion.”

“Since today’s census and (centers for disease control) data also show that people in the more than 20 states that rejected the expansion were likelier to be uninsured in 2013 than people in states that took the expansion, this means the gap in health insurance coverage between the two groups of states is widening,” Greenstein said.

The debate to expand Medicaid dominated the 126th Maine Legislature, with LePage vetoing an array of proposals to accept federal funding from the health care law.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who is challenging LePage for the Blaine House this year, said in a written statement that the governor’s health care policies were taking Maine backward.

“While the rate of people without health insurance is dropping nationally, it’s going up in Maine,” Michaud said. “Thousands of people in Maine are unable to see a doctor when they need one and are one accident or illness away from catastrophic medical bills. And it’s not just people without insurance who are suffering. Every person with health insurance is paying a hidden tax and our hospitals are struggling with an increase in bad debt and charity care.”

Alex Willette, LePage’s campaign spokesman, stressed that the governor had focused on market-based health care reforms, specifically a 2011 law known as PL 90, which overhauled the state’s insurance regulation. Unfortunately, he said, the Affordable Care Act had caused uncertainty in the insurance marketplace, particularly for employers.

Independent candidate Eliot Cutler said PL 90 and Maine’s slow economic recovery were probably responsible for the increase in the uninsured.

“It’s probably more a consequence of people losing their jobs,” Cutler said. “Secondly, the high cost of health insurance in northern and eastern Maine as a consequence of PL 90, and thus the decision by employers who employ fewer than 50 to stop offering health insurance.”

He added: “Remember, part-time people don’t get covered by health insurance, but they get counted as employed. … I think there’s a much broader explanation.”

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

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