NEW YORK - Almost 82 million people in the United States or one in three under age 65 had no health insurance for at least one month in the past two years, a study by a consumer group said on Wednesday.
Nearly two-thirds of those people had no insurance for at least six months during 2002 and 2003, and just over half went without benefits for at least nine months, according to the study by Washington-based Families USA.
Many of the uninsured had middle-class incomes and live in presidential battleground states where a pollster said voters' fears of losing their health benefits could tip the balance.
"The growing number of Americans without health insurance is now a phenomenon that significantly affects middle-class and working families," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA.
Among people who earned roughly $56,000 a year to $75,000, more than one in four were uninsured, with four out of five of the uninsured in working families.
The U.S. economy is now adding jobs, but the recent downturn swelled the ranks of uninsured, the group said.
"Over 2002 and 2003 ... we've seen some very high unemployment rates. That certainly played a role in the magnitude (of uninsured)," said Kathleen Stoll, the group's director of health policy.
Hispanics, the nation's largest minority group, had the highest rate of uninsured at just under 60 percent. Nearly 43 percent of blacks under 65 were uninsured and almost 24 percent of whites.
The study involved people under 65 because the elderly are covered by Medicare, the federal health insurance plan.
Texas led the list of states with the highest percentage of uninsured people at 43.4 percent. New Mexico was second with 42.4 percent and California followed with 37.1 percent.
California had the highest number of people without insurance -- 11.9 million. Texas came in second with 8.5 million, followed by New York with 5.6 million.
The presidential campaign of Democrat John Kerry called the report "a stunning indictment of his (President Bush's) failure to address the soaring health care costs and difficulties millions of Americans face in accessing affordable, quality health care."
A Bush campaign spokesman was not immediately available.
Pollster John Zogby said November's presidential election was too close to call in several states with the highest numbers of uninsured, including Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.
"You're talking about enough voters to throw the election one way or the other," Zogby said.
Many voters feared losing their health benefits, he said, adding: "People are crystal clear: 'If this country tolerates a lot of people without health insurance, that could be me."'
The report was based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which means it includes citizens and nonvoting residents, said Pollack. "(But) somebody who is not in the country legally is not likely to respond to the Census Bureau questions," he said.
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