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The Nation

Study Finds More in U.S. Lack Health Insurance

March 05, 2003|Vicki Kemper | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A new report to be released today shows that the lack of health insurance is a much more widespread problem than formerly believed, with roughly 75 million non-elderly Americans -- nearly 1 in 3 -- going without coverage for some period during the last two years.

The report, published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is the latest in a series of government and private studies to show that rising health-care costs, a weakening economy and state budget deficits are leaving more Americans without basic health coverage.

Using data collected by the Census Bureau, the report found that almost two-thirds of those who lacked insurance sometime in 2001 or 2002 were uninsured for at least six months. One-quarter -- or roughly 18 million people -- had no health insurance for the two-year period.

Nearly 4 in 5 of those lacking health insurance were in the labor force or had at least one parent who was employed.

California had more uninsured individuals -- 11.1 million -- than any other state. Its proportion of the uninsured non-elderly -- 35.5% -- was higher than the national average.

"The uninsured problem is no longer an issue of altruism for other people," Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, said Tuesday. "Now it is an issue of self-interest for us all."

The finding that 30.1% of non-elderly Americans went without health insurance for some part of the two-year period is considerably higher than the latest official government estimate.

The most recent report by the Census Bureau, released in September, found that 41.2 million Americans -- or 14.6% of the population -- had no health coverage for any part of 2001.

The Robert Wood Johnson report, prepared by the advocacy group Families USA, sheds new light on the problem by using additional and more recent Census Bureau data to calculate the number of Americans who had gone without health insurance for any length of time over two years.

Last year, the Census Bureau said the first jump in the uninsured rate in three years was largely because of a decline in the proportion of Americans who got health coverage through their own job or that of a family member.

The Census Bureau cautioned at the time that, if not for increased enrollment in Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program, the number of Americans uninsured in 2001 would have been much higher.

Since then, however, the safety net offered by those public health programs for the poor has been shrinking. Last year, 26 states cut Medicaid benefits, and 42 states have said they will cut benefits this year.

Today's release of the report is designed to launch scores of town hall meetings, teach-ins, health fairs, business meetings and interfaith events next week designed to draw attention to the problem.

"Cover the Uninsured Week" is sponsored by three health-care philanthropies -- the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the California Endowment and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation -- as well a collection of health-care, business, labor and consumer groups from across the political spectrum.

They include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO and several other labor unions, the American Medical Assn., AARP and the Health Insurance Assn.

Several television shows also have gotten into the act. Coming episodes of NBC's "ER," "Law and Order: SVU," and "Passions," as well as Lifetime's "Strong Medicine," will highlight problems caused by the lack of health insurance.

And the American Assn. of Health Plans, the HMO trade group, has launched an advertising campaign in movie theaters. "By the end of this movie," its ads say, "another 465 Americans will lose their health insurance because of runaway costs."

Every year, Congress considers numerous proposals designed to give more Americans access to health insurance. Until now, however, they have succumbed to political opposition or gridlock.

Pollack said Tuesday that he hoped the new information about the uninsured Americans would move the country toward "a tipping point that will require real and meaningful political action."

Pollack also found hope in the number of disparate groups that agree something must be done.

Until now, he said, "each group came with its top-priority proposal," and "every organization's second-favorite choice was the status quo."

"But now, organizations are starting to say they have to find other alternatives.... They're realizing they have to compromise," Pollack said. "They're saying business as usual should no longer continue."

--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---

Number of uninsured: The article states inaccurately that 41.2 million Americans had no health coverage for any part of 2001. The figure, based on Census Bureau data, refers to the number of people in America and does not specify whether they are citizens.

--- END NOTE ---

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