The Number of Uninsured U.S. Residents Rose by 1.4 Million in 2001, Census Figures Find
The number of uninsured people living in the United States increased by 1.4 million in 2001, to 41.2 million, or 14.6% of the total population, compared to 39.8 million, or 14.2%, in 2000, according to figures released today by the Census Bureau, the New York Times reports (Pear, New York Times, 9/30). In California, 18% of residents were uninsured, the third-highest percentage in the nation behind New Mexico and Texas (Kemper, Los Angeles Times, 9/30). The new data are based on interviews with 78,000 households and were obtained under the Census Bureau's annual Current Population Survey. Respondents were asked if they had health insurance at any point during 2001. According to the figures, the "most substantial drop" in insurance occurred among small business workers whose health benefits were discontinued by their employers. The proportion of people who received health coverage through their jobs fell from 63.6% in 2000 to 62.6% in 2001, a difference "almost entirely attributable" to a decline in employer-sponsored health coverage at businesses with 25 employees or fewer (Goldstein, Washington Post, 9/30). Overall, the report states that the increase in the number of uninsured, which had fallen during the previous two years, was caused by a "combination of rapidly rising health care costs and a weak economy," the Los Angeles Times reports (Kemper, Los Angeles Times, 9/30).
The Washington Post notes that racial and ethnic minorities, for whom a lack of health coverage has "long been ... acute," continued to have the lowest rates of insurance nationwide. One-third of Latinos were uninsured in 2001, and 40% of non-U.S. citizens lacked health benefits, compared to 10% of U.S. citizens. Considered by age, the percentage of uninsured people increased among those ages 25 to 64 in 2001 but not among "very young" workers, who typically have lower rates of coverage (Washington Post, 9/30). The report found the number of children without insurance was "virtually unchanged" at about 8.5 million, while the number of uninsured adults increased from 31.2 million in 2000 to 32.7 million in 2001 (New York Times, 9/30).
The report attributed the decline in health coverage to several factors, including a jump in unemployment, inflated health-related costs and an increasing number of states for which the cost of public insurance programs, such as Medicaid and CHIP, is causing budget deficits. According to health policy experts, last year's increased rate of uninsured U.S. residents "foreshadows a more dramatic drop-off [in health coverage] this year and, perhaps, next," the Post reports. "This is not a blip. This is something we are going to see get worse and worse over the next several years," Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, said (Washington Post, 9/30). However, Pollack added that one "silver lining" in the report was a finding that the proportion of people covered by Medicaid increased from 10.6% in 2000 to 11.2% last year (AP/Long Island Newsday, 9/30). Public health insurance programs were especially important for children, the report found. While some children became uninsured during 2001 because their parents lost employer-sponsored health coverage, the decline was offset by an increase in children insured through state Medicaid and CHIP programs (New York Times, 9/30). Pollack said the statistics show that "public program expansions should be enacted to increase health coverage for low-wage working adults" (Los Angeles Times, 9/30).
The report also indicates that the issue of the uninsured "could once again emerge as a dominant political theme" as it did during the early 1990s, the Wall Street Journal reports. While the issue "fell off the radar screen" this year as Congress debated "higher-profile" topics such as a Medicare prescription drug benefit, the report garnered various responses on how to increase health coverage rates. HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said Congress should pass President Bush's proposal to provide tax credits to low-income families to purchase insurance through private health plans (Spors/Lueck, Wall Street Journal, 9/30). "It's time to ... give those who purchase coverage on their own the same tax advantages as those who receive it through their jobs," Kate Sullivan, director of health care policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in support of Bush's plan (AP/Long Island Newsday, 9/30). However, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) reiterated his intention to try to replace employer-based health insurance with a government-based program, adding, "The large increase in the already unacceptably high number of the uninsured should be a wake-up call for Congress and the president" (Los Angeles Times, 9/30). Meanwhile, a coalition led by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and endorsed by former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter said it plans to organize a "Cover the Uninsured Week" in March, featuring "hundreds of events across the country to draw attention to the issue," the Post reports (Washington Post, 9/30). For more information, go to http://coveringtheuninsured.org/.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.