U.S. uninsured rate climbs again
Forty-seven million Americans went without health insurance in 2006, an increase of 2.2 million people from the year before, according to a report issued by the U.S. Census Bureau Tuesday (Aug. 28). It marks the sixth consecutive year the ranks of the uninsured have grown.
For the second year in a row, the percentage of children without medical coverage also increased. The Census Bureau estimates 8.7 million kids – or 11.7 percent – had no insurance, an increase of 700,000 over the year before.
Advocacy groups immediately seized on the numbers to back their call for an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), a joint state-federal venture for families who make too much to qualify for Medicaid.
“The huge number of uninsured Americans exceeds the cumulative population of 24 states plus the District of Columbia. This epidemic of uninsurance has reached crisis proportions, and Americans want to see the problem solved,” said Kathleen Stoll, health policy director of Families USA, a group pushing for a large expansion of SCHIP.
In a statement released by American Medical Association, Dr. Joseph Heyman, a board member, said, “It is unconscionable that the number of uninsured children has substantially increased over the past year. Children are our future, and for kids to get a good start in life, they need access to regular visits to the doctor.”
But Greg D'Angelo, a health researcher at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the Census count is “very misleading” because it overstates the number of chronically uninsured, low-income Americans. The figure includes illegal immigrants, people already eligible for government programs, middle-class Americans who can afford but don’t buy insurance and workers who have temporarily lost coverage between jobs, he noted.
Both chambers of Congress approved plans earlier this month to dramatically reshape SCHIP by allowing millions more kids to join. But President Bush threatened to veto both proposals, calling them the first step on the road to socialized medicine.
House and Senate negotiators will try to hammer out their differences when Congress reconvenes next month. The program is set to expire Sept. 30.
The growing numbers of uninsured – especially the 1.5 million additional adults – will likely impose even more financial pressure on public hospitals, said John Holahan, director of the health policy center at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Adults put more of a strain on hospitals, he noted, because they’re more expensive to treat.
Holahan said this increase occurred when some workers lost insurance coverage no longer provided by their employers, while the numbers of those served by public programs – such as Medicaid, Medicare and SCHIP – did not grow substantially.
The high cost of insurance for small companies and demographic shifts are both contributing to the steady slide in employer-based coverage. As Americans move to the West and South, they enter jobs that are less likely to offer insurance than those in the traditional manufacturing states in the Northeast and Midwest, he said.
With 24 percent of its population without coverage, Texas had the highest uninsured rate in the country, according to the report. The states with the lowest uninsured rates – all with close to 9 percent – are Minnesota, Hawaii, Iowa, Wisconsin and Maine.
D’Angelo, from the Heritage Foundation, agreed that employer-based coverage is eroding. That’s why, instead of expanding public programs, the government should encourage people with tax breaks to buy health insurance on their own, not through their employers, he said.
The insurance coverage statistics are part of a larger snapshot of Americans’ economic situation released by the Census Bureau Aug. 28. The new data, based on annual surveys the Census Bureau conducts between its once-a-decade headcount, include state-by-state and, in some cases, county-by-county information on wages, poverty and demographics.
The new data also show, for instance, that percentage of Americans living in poverty (now 12.3 percent) dipped for the first time this decade, and the median household income inched up for the second straight year, reaching $48,200.