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Uninsured ranks grow but not as much as expected

As Congress and the nation focus on health-care reform, the Census Bureau said today that the number of people without health insurance grew by 600,000 people to 46.3 million in 2008.

The uninsured rate of 15.4 percent is statistically unchanged from 2007, the Census Bureau noted.

The numbers weren’t as high as expected, the Los Angeles Times reports. “The ranks of people without medical coverage, which increased from 45.7 million in 2007, were expected to have risen more sharply last year. But the overall number was lowered by expanding government safety-net programs and rising Medicare enrollment, which is driven by aging Baby Boomers. The number of uninsured children fell to 7.3 million from 8.1 million in 2007.”

“The bright spot in the new estimates is the continued increase in coverage for children — thanks in part to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP),” said Lynn Blewett, director of the State Health Access Data Assistance Center at the University of Minnesota. “The number of uninsured children in the U.S. declined 10 percent … the lowest rate since 1987.”

Some analysts think the overall number might be closer to 50 million. The survey was taken in March 2008, months before the unemployment rate started spiking.

“The 2008 Census Bureau’s data … substantially understate how many people lack health coverage today,” said Families USA executive director Ron Pollack in a statement. “That is because the unemployment rate in 2008 ranged from 4.8 to 7.2 percent, while that rate was 9.7 percent in August 2009.

“Based on previous analyses, each one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate means approximately 1.1 million additional people joined the ranks of the uninsured,” said Pollack, whose advocacy group pushes for affordable health care for consumers. “As a result, the number of uninsured today is probably close to 50 million.”

The outlook remains bleak, the Los Angeles Times said. “… Analysts expect the number of uninsured and the official poverty rate, which last year hit 13.2%, up from 12.5%, to keep rising this year and next. Although the U.S. economy is expected to resume growing in the second half of this year, about 3.8 million payroll jobs have been eliminated since January, and unemployment, currently at 9.7%, is projected to grow to 10% in the coming months.”

“I still don’t think we have not seen the full effects of the economic downturn but these estimates are the first indication of likely impact that we will see in future estimates,” Blewett said. “The trend line in rates of uninsurance has not changed in over 20 years and will not change without significant reform of the health care system. As President Obama stated in his speech last night, we are the only developed country in world that does not provide universal coverage to its citizens. It’s an international embarrassment.”

Other highlights of the Census update:

• The percentage of people covered by employment-based health insurance decreased to 58.5 percent in 2008 from 59.3 percent in 2007.

• The percentage of people covered by private health insurance was 66.7 percent in 2008, down from 67.5 percent in 2007.

• The percentage of people covered by government health insurance programs increased to 29 percent in 2008, from 27.8 percent in 2007.

Pollack notes that the overall number of uninsured residents now represents the combined populations of 24 states and the District of Columbia, including Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming.

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